Nine months ago, in those heady times pre-Covid, I had booked a photography trip to Mongolia. On this very day, I had planned to drive to Heathrow, stay the night at a hotel, and the next day take the two flights to Ulaanbaatar, the capitol.
But the world has changed since then. So I instead packed the car, including Tilly (my green-cheeked conure and best parrot in the world), and headed out to the Forest of Dean. A friend of mine was letting the bird and me borrow her cottage for a week’s holiday. And after the six months of lockdown, virus, furlough, and general uncertainty, it was just wonderful to be finally be leaving the house and neighbourhood I’d come to know all too well.
The weekend was forecast to be a hot one, so we headed off before 10am. The two-hour drive was steady and uneventful. I was confused when I arrived at the cottage, as my friend and her husband were there. She assured me that I had the correct date, and that they were just packing up after a week there themselves. After a quick tour of the house, I helped them with their stuff and waved them goodbye.
After lunch, I put Tilly in her cage and sat outside, enjoying the sun, a book, and a couple of glasses of red wine. The Mongolia trip would have given me five days with camel herders in the Gobi desert, then five days with eagle hunters in the mountains. Now I was near the Welsh border, watching a horse graze in the nearby field and swallows darting overhead. But as I drank in wine and sunshine, I felt relaxed and content.
In normal times, I might have gone to the local church for Sunday worship. But these are not normal times. Some churches have resumed worship, indoors or outdoors. Others have decided to continue with on-line services only. A number of them ask for people to book in advance, so they know how many are coming.
So rather than enjoy God’s second book, I decided to visit her first, namely the natural world. Puzzlewood, in the Forest of Dean, was about a twenty-minute drive from the cottage. Due to the need to keep numbers down for social distancing reasons, the attraction required people to book on-line, choosing a time slot for entry, which I did. When I turned up, I showed my ticket to a chap standing by the entrance. Sadly, he had to turn away a group of people who had not booked.
Puzzlewood has a long history. Pots of Roman coins were found in the area decades ago (and disappeared again). Freeminers worked here, men who had earned the right to mine personal plots, known as gales. A freeminer had to be born and live within the ‘Hundred of St Briavels’ (a division of land for administrative purposes), be over 21 years old, and have worked for year and a day in a mine within the Hundred.
The scowles, which look like pathways cut through the rocks, were formed from a mixture of mining and the natural exposure of underground cave systems. Ferns, mosses, and animals inhabit the area.
Puzzlewood has been a tourist attraction for decades. In more recent years, the area has been used a number of films and TV series. The ‘Doctor Who’ episodes ‘Flesh and Stone’ and ‘Time of the Doctor’, many ‘Merlin’ stories, as well as ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ were filmed in the woods.
I was given a leaflet of views to look for. The leaflet reflected Covid-19 advice, but interestingly a black marker had been used twice to cover over the word ‘muggles’. Had the owners become concerned that JK Rowling would sue them for using it? Or was this after the author had been accused of transphobia?
Tripods are banned, which is understandable, as there’s nothing as inconvenient as a photographer blocking everyone’s way. But, for a photographer in rather dark woods, this means frustration. Where I could, I propped my camera on a rock, or fence, or branch to take a timed exposure.
The woods themselves were, well, magical. The ravines were otherworldly, the mosses (very dry) grew over strangely shaped rocks, and the trees waved green and tall above us.
I was also able to indulge in a bit of wildlife watching, namely the British family on a day out. Parents were constantly trying to keep their children near them and on the trail (rather than plunging into a ravine or up a steep slope). ‘Mary, come back here,’ one mother implored for the tenth time. ‘Remember, I’m the one with the food,’ the father said. Unfortunately, it was younger Alison who wanted food, not the intrepid Mary.
One father was trying to take photos and keep an eye on his sons. One was terribly bored, swinging a branch at rocks. The other ignored all the instructions (from father as well as on signs) and leaving the path to climb down into ravines.
Then there was the seven year old boy who told his five-year-old brother, ‘Louis, don’t follow me’, as he clambered up a rock. Of course that meant younger brother would try to follow behind. Even the nine-year-old sister told him, ‘Why do you think that’ll work?’
Due to social distancing measures, a visitor was asked to never backtrack, and to keep moving. A couple of times, you had to make a choice as to whether to take ‘the high bridge or ‘the low bridge.’ At the end, there was the option to start over. I decided I’d had a happy 90 minutes, and that I’d try to come back on one of their photography days (when tripods are permitted).
Various farm animals mill about in corrals outside, such as donkeys, ponies, goats, and sheep. I stopped to watch the Indian runner ducks, which look like Mallards on stilts due to their upright posture.
As I was still in wind-down mode, I headed back to the cottage to re-join Tilly. After lunch, I took her outside to once again read in the sunshine. This time I decided to have an afternoon beer rather than wine. And we spent a rather lovely rest of the day together.
The weather forecast kept changing, but warning over and over again of the possibility of thunderstorms. Most worryingly was that the prediction for Thursday, the day for which I’d booked a ticket to go to the Slimbridge Wetland Centre, looked pretty dire. I decided there was no point fretting over it.
I headed off to Tewkesbury, a town I don’t recall ever visiting before. A short drive brought me to the pay and display car park at the Abbey. I sold off a kidney to pay the fee (which I think goes to the Abbey—the money, not the organ) and headed down to the nearby meadow to take photos.
Tewkesbury Abbey or, to give the church her proper name, ‘The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin’, was originally a Benedictine monastery. According to the font of all wisdom which is Wikipedia, the church has ‘probably the largest Romanesque crossing tower in Europe’. The present building dates back to the 12th century.
Sadly even her status as a church didn’t stop bloodshed during the War of the Roses. Defeated Lancastrians, on 4 May 1471, tried to claim sanctuary inside. But the Yorkists forced their way inside and killed the soldiers.
As with many churches, the Abbey was shut during the Covid-19 lockdown. The main section is now open to visitors, from 9am to 1pm, face coverings required. So I pulled up my Buff (a fabric tube worn around the neck) to cover mouth and nose before going inside.
Chairs had been removed, and there were few other visitors. My eyeglasses steamed up as I attempted to take photos inside. When I was the only person around, I pulled the Buff down to just my mouth and took my shots before pulling it up again.
I visited the area around the Abbey, enjoying the sight of a pear tree. I helped myself to blackberries growing nearby.
Afterwards, I wandered into town. The old timber buildings are a reminder that Tewkesbury dates back to the 7th century. Old alleyways still exist. Many shops were open again, with strict limits on numbers who could enter at a time and the requirement that one wore a face covering when inside. The information centre/museum was shut, sadly.
I made my way to the river, and discovered a large beer garden. I made a trip into the pub (where face coverings were not required) to buy a soft drink and a bag of crisps. I stopped to fill out the ‘Test and Trace’ form so that I could be contacted should someone else who had been in the pub test positive for Covid-19 before going back out to the beer garden.
The light was now the harsh midday haze which is useless for photography. I decided to head back to reunite myself with the bird and to enjoy a beer outside the cottage. As I made the return journey, I found myself pondering the names of the villages I passed. Bishop’s Cleeve, for example. What is a cleeve, and why would a bishop have one? I found out later that a cleeve is a sloping hillside. Later on I passed a street called ‘Pope’s Hill’. Research has not yet revealed any other ecclesiastical hummocks.
Determined to do some proper photography, the type which requires a tripod, filters, and patience, I set off to Wenchford. The area, managed by Forestry England, includes Blackpool Brook. Flat summer light is not good for sweeping landscape photography, but shaded water can prove to be quite good. Plus I wanted to spend some more time in the forest itself.
There was plenty of parking when I arrived at 10am. The pay and display, however, only took coins. Not notes, not cards. I keep a coin purse in the car for parking charges, but I could only rustle up enough for two hours’ worth. I decided that that would have to do.
The site’s toilets were open, but Covid-19 measures meant that only one person at a time was to go inside (although there were three stalls). People dutifully queued outside as required.
Blackpool Brook turned out to be a delightful long stretch of shallow water. Children and dogs splashed happily whilst their owners and elders sat in folding chairs or on picnic blankets nearby. The trees, in full summer growth, cast plenty of shade, and a breeze helped to keep the temperatures down. Families agreed with me that this was far better place to spend a day than a crowded beach at the seaside.
I had a happy 90 minutes trying out the new tripod and doing some experimental shots with my 14mm wide-angle lens. The time to test out new equipment is before it really matters.
By the time I packed up and returned to my car, there were scarcely any parking spaces left. People had resorted to parking along the track. I made a woman very happy by pulling out, giving her a spot to park.
Although the SatNav on my iPhone had successfully brought me to the spot, the iPhone now informed me that there was no signal and therefore no SatNav. This has happened to me before, and I simply don’t understand it. How can SatNav work to bring you somewhere, but then not to take you home again? Never mind answers on a postcard, I’d be happy to read an essay which explains this. I managed to remember enough landmarks to bring me back to a town where the iPhone kicked back into life, and then I used the SatNav from there on. I did stop at a petrol station to buy a bag of crisps and thus obtain change for the next time I have to pay cash in a car park.
I had thought of going out again after lunch, but the heat and laziness overwhelmed me, and I spent the afternoon at the cottage sitting outside, reading, watching the bird dry (she had a bath after lunch), and drinking a beer.
The weather forecast warned of thunderstorms, but admitted that where and when was hard to predict. So as I packed my backpack for a day in Gloucester, I made sure to take a raincoat.
I had a dim memory of visiting Gloucester Docks decades ago, and it was with hope of pinning the actual details down (Whom was I with? Why can’t I remember parking anywhere?) that I headed off to that ancient city.
Parking was easy to find, ample at the docks themselves. I grabbed camera and headed out, determined to obtain photographs before the light became too harsh. The old warehouses, now mostly converted into flats, were reflected in the still waters and between the moored boats. Seagulls screeched overhead, and I saw one land on the water and take a long drink. This was a reminder that the docks, and the associated canals, derive from the Severn River and therefore the water is fresh, not salty.
Boats had travelled up the Severn River for many years, transporting goods to and from further into the country’s interior. Gloucester had been granted the status of a port by Queen Elizabeth I in 1580, permitting ships to trade directly between Gloucester and foreign ports without calling at the Bristol customs house. The Gloucester & Sharpness Canal was opened in 1827, allowing boats to bypass a winding part of the river, which increased trade. In 1874 a new dock was opened at Sharpness, able to accommodate the larger ships which had come into use, and as a result cargo handling diminished at Gloucester.
As I happily took photos, I came to realise that I had not been to the area before. (Which were the docks that I have visited? This will drive me nuts.) I paused for an iced coffee in a café, then dropped into the Mariners’ Church. A number of pews had been removed to allow for social distancing at their Sunday evening worship (Sunday morning worship is held in a school—or at least it was pre-Covid).
Nearby was the National Waterways Museum. In line with Covid regulations, I wore my Buff over nose and mouth when I entered, and was greeted by staff wearing facemasks. The museum has been marked with a one-way system, although the staff member who welcomed me pointed out that there were only three people currently visiting, so I didn’t need to adhere to the arrows. Rather unusually, not only does the museum allow dogs to enter, the tearoom offers ice cream for canines.
The museum is small, but very interesting. (I find most things interesting, I have to admit.) The history of the waterways was well laid out, with a mixture of displays and videos. I learned a lot about the building of canals, the ships which plied the waters, and the men, women, and families who made their living transporting cargo. The railways finally ended trade on the canals, as trains could carry freight more quickly and to more destinations. Waterways are now used for leisure purposes.
After an enjoyable hour, I went to a local pub for lunch, the Lord High Constable of England. The pub derives its name in a roundabout way. Next door is the Llanthony Warehouse, named after the nearby Llanthony Secunda Priory. The now-ruined priory was established in 1136 by Miles de Gloucester who, like his father and grandfather, was High Sheriff of Gloucester and Lord High Constable of England. Methinks the pub just wanted a strange name…
The pub’s Covid-19 ‘Test and Trace’ was rather advanced. I scanned a barcode into my iPhone, which opened a website where I put in a number to log my location before adding the number of people in my group and how long we planned to stay. The pub chain has an app, so you can sit at your table, input the number, order what you want on-line, pay for the meal through your phone, and then wait for your order to be delivered. It all worked perfectly. I sat outside and enjoyed the views whilst tucking into a sirloin steak. Under the government’s current ‘Eat out to help out’, I was only charged 50% of the cost. The exchequer (and ultimately the taxpayer) picks up the rest.
After my first meal out since February, I made my way into the city. Snatches of conversation intrigued me. ‘That’s a big suitcase,’ a man remarked to a woman pulling the case through the street. Her response was, ‘I’m trying to get away from my sister who is trying to kill me with medical drugs.’ The man nodded and moved on. At one point I heard my name called, but the woman shouting it was trying to attract the attention of a nearby man. ‘Haven’t seen you for awhile,’ she told him. ‘Where are you living now, and is it safe?’
I went on to the Cathedral (properly know as ‘the Cathedral Church of St Peter and the Holy and Indivisible Trinity’). By now, it was very hot and walking on concrete only increased the sweat quotient. The street down to the Cathedral’s entrance had several New Age shops, which intrigued me. I took a number of photos outside the Cathedral. A recent episode of ‘Doctor Who’ was filmed here, along with scenes from various ‘Harry Potter’ films.
I obediently pulled my Buff over mouth and nose before heading inside. The cloisters were lovely. The main part of the Cathedral surprised me by being much smaller inside than I would have expected. I explored the building my glasses steaming up as I attempted to take photos whilst wearing the Buff.
The heat had only increased during my visit. I panted my way back to the car park, drinking yet more water from my bottle. Before I drove away, I opened various car doors to let the heat dissipate. It was all a bit too much for my iPhone, which became overheated during its attempts to navigate me home. Fortunately, it was a straightforward journey, and I turned it off once back so it could cool down and recover.
During the afternoon, a sudden fierce wind drove me and bird back inside. Dark clouds massed overhead, and I thought I saw some cloud funnels (tornadoes are funnels which have touched the ground). The temperatures finally dropped, particularly once the rain swept in.
Watching the weather forecast did not fill me with joy, as I watched it change from predicting sun, to rain, to thunderstorms, then back to grey skies for my visit to Slimbridge. But as the ticket was non-refundable, the fact that the weather had changed from hot and sunny to cooler and damp did not deter me from making the drive to the Centre.
Slimbridge was opened by Sir Peter Scott in 1946, not only to preserve the wetlands area and the birdlife, but also for research. Scott worked out a method of recognising individual birds through their characteristics, and also set up captive breeding programmes. The Centre has been open to the public from the start.
The Centre saved the Nene (Hawaiian) goose from extinction. After successful breeding at the Centre, geese were taken back to Hawaii and released into the wild. The Centre has also increased numbers of the Common crane. And, in a move which feels at odds with the generally more low-key species, all six types of flamingos also live here.
The first area in the Centre is a lake with many species of ducks and geese. Specially formulated bird food is for sale in the shop, and children were happily feeding it to very eager birds. I took a few photos before moving on to the first flamingo enclosure. A little further on, I spent some time watching a moorhen bringing food to a solitary chick.
The American otters, sadly, were in hiding, so I walked past their enclosure to the building beyond. This housed tanks holding fish and, a bit further one, one with harvest mice. The mice were very small, the length of my thumb, and a group of them had piled on top of each other in a nest. The thick glass didn’t allow for the best of images, but I took a photo anyway.
Some of the bird hides were shut, due to Covid measures. Those which were open kept human numbers down, and we had to wear a face mask whilst inside. In the end, I took off my glasses as these were steaming up too much for me to take photos.
The forecast rain swept in, a heavy down pour which sent people into the hide for cover. One couple removed their facemasks to have their lunch. Children soon became bored with looking out brown birds on grey waters, and parents decided it was better to become soaked than deal with the protests.
A number of people had come with tripods and scopes, and these keen birders swapped bird sightings. Great excitement was had over the appearance of a Spotted redshank, a bird which I liked because it was easy to identify. Spotted, with long red legs. Great longing was expressed by many to see a Green sandpiper, which was rumoured to be in the area but refusing to make an appearance.
When the rain finally eased, I left the hide to explore further. I admired the Berwick’s swans, which normally arrive from Siberia in the autumn to overwinter in England. I also enjoyed watching the Caribbean flamingos unfolding long necks to enter into haughty debates.
As I headed to the visitor centre and the exit, I watched two pigeons courting. After the male fed the female, she allowed him to climb on her back to mate with her. ‘Look, mommy, one is standing on the other,’ a small child commented. The mother replied, ‘They’re playing together.’ Which is a fair enough description, I suppose.
An uneventful drive home reunited me with my own bird. I assured her that even the flamingos couldn’t replace her in my affections.
My morning visit was to an attraction less than two miles away, the Westbury Court Garden. Various manor houses have stood nearby over the centuries, but these are now gone. The Dutch style water garden was originally laid out between 1696 and 1705. It fell into disrepair over the decades. The National Trust restored it and planted 17th century plants as far as possible. According to the National Trust, the garden is the only restored one of its type in the UK. Most of these gardens were made over into more naturalistic type gardens in the 18th century, as popularised by Capability Brown.
I’d booked a timed entry ticket in advance, and turned up at the entrance both in good time. The overcast skies made me concentrate on photographing plants rather than grander vistas. The apples and pears bore droplets of rain water and flowers looked freshly washed.
As I wandered through the vegetable and herb gardens, rain began to fall. I decided it was time to leave. I visited the shop of a nearby smokery, disappointed that the smoked chicken breast wasn’t free range (I asked), but bought a small loaf of sourbread and some smoked salmon for my lunch. With the rain hammering heavily now, I headed back to cottage for an afternoon in.
Leaving day. I packed up, vacuumed the house (bird feathers and bits of seeds!), and I drove us home. It was good to have had the break!
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