Friday, August 30, 2013

A Squirrelific Birthday Present

The Northumberland Sunday dawned crisp and clear. Our alarm went off at 6.30am and we left our B&B at 8am. It was time for my birthday surprise.

Adam had booked us into a session with a local wildlife photographer, Will Nicholls, who loves to photograph red squirrels! Woo hoo!! Adam was hoping that we could take some photos that would be good enough to stick up on the wall when we get back home to New Zealand, thus being able to gaze at those squirrelly visages FOREVER. 

We had a whole three hours with Will, out in his camouflaged hide in woods on the edge of the Northumberland National Park. Only one squirrel came to visit, but got some great shots of her, and there were also plenty of birds to see. 

We had a great morning and were thrilled with the performance of our camera (bought before our Gallipoli trip) and new 70-300mm lens. We got some great pictures and I can't wait to display them on the walls of my house, one day! Thanks Adam (and Will)!! What an awesome birthday present!!! 

It feels so good to know that we have taken these pictures, not just bought some lovely pictures that someone else has taken. Such a feeling of satisfaction and pride in our work! I love photography!

And squirrels. Bring on the squirrels:

Not a squirrel. Possibly a chaffinch.
Also not a squirrel. A cute, fluffy young robin.
A warbler or tit? Either way, still not a squirrel. 
Click to enlarge. You know you want to.

*sigh* Aren't red squirrels just perfect?!?! My husband shall be in the good books for a very long time yet! Happy Birthday, Me!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Northumberland and another visit to Hadrian's Wall

Steel Rigg, Hadrian's Wall 
Our next stop was Northumberland, where Adam had a surprise birthday present in store for me. Northumberland is in the north-east of England, on the border with Scotland, and has historically been the site of many conflicts between north and south. Northumberland was a key part of the industrial revolution, with many coal mines, and today many of the county's towns and cities remain largely working-class. Despite this, Northumberland is still quite rural, and is the most sparsely populated county in England, with "only" 62 people per square kilometre.

Hadrian's Wall comes equipped with midget-size doors

About one quarter of the county is designated a national park, and a large percentage of the UK's red squirrels live in this park (squirrel away that information for later...). The area also contains much of Hadrian's Wall, which, you may remember, we last visited on our way to Scotland for Christmas.

In case you can't remember, Hadrian's Wall was a defensive fortification, built in Roman Britain under Empire Hadrian. The wall was 117.5 km long, 3-6 m wide, and 3-6 m high, depending on which side of the Cumbria/Northumberland border you were on. It was built as a show of power, and to repel any potential attacks from the barbarians of the north. Gates may also have provided a way of keeping track of entering or exiting persons, as well as allowing the Empire to charge customs taxes. Over the years, much of the wall was removed and the stone used for building other fences or for roads.

When we visited at Christmas, we came across the Birdoswald Roman Fort, but this time we were a bit further east, at a place called Steel Rigg. We did two separate walks, one to the east and one to the west - well-fuelled by a lovely roast dinner in the nearby town of Haydon Bridge.

We walked about 2.5 hours in total, walking beside the wall almost the whole way. Towards Crags Loch (the lake in the pictures below) there were some very steep sections, with smooth, well-worn stone steps to climb up or down the hills. My thigh and calf muscles were screaming that evening!

Adam also got a stunning picture of the famous Sycamore Gap.

What an exciting (and picturesque) part of England! We had such a lovely day exploring the countryside and working our muscles - but the following day would be much better....(still got that information squirreled away?? It may give you a clue as to what the birthday present would involve...)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Ambleside, Windermere, and Beatrix Potter's Hill Top Farm

On our final day in the Lake District, we left Keswick and headed up the hill towards Watendlath. Along the way, we passed the famous Ashness Bridge, which was built for packhorses to get across the beck, or mountain stream. I assume this means that goods were regularly transported over this high mountain range.

The view shown in our picture below looks towards Derwentwater and is one of the most famous views in the Lake District.

Ashness Bridge 
The cottage beside the beck
Ashness Bridge from the other side
We continued up the steep hill that was barely wide enough for a car, and parked beside a spot known as Surprise View. From this viewpoint, you can see the whole of Derwentwater, as well as Bassenthwaite in the north and Borrowdale to the south. It truly is a stunning view, and according to our tour guide from our cruise on Derwentwater, it has been voted one of the best views in the UK. I couldn't find anything about this on the internet, but I can see how it might be true!

Our tripod earns its worth!
Next was a whistle-stop visit to Windermere, where we had a tasty lunch from the 'Apple Pie Bakery'. The best part was CUSTARD-SQUARE!!! Yummo. Over here they call it Vanilla Slice, and sometimes it is just whipped cream between the pastry. But this was the real deal.
(This particular custard square is actually from Bristol, eaten in October 2011. The only other proper one we've had in the UK - though the Bristol specimen did have a layer of jam beside the pastry.)
After lunch, we drove to a lovely homestead garden rated the number one attraction in Windermere (on Trip Advisor). I'm not big on fancy, manicured gardens, but Holehird Gardens were gorgeous. There were lots of secluded pathways and hidden bench-seats, and it was all very lovely. The gardens reminded me of "professional" botanic gardens (such as in Christchurch) but Holehird is entirely tended by volunteers. Well done, those people!

There was also a short walk to the top of a hill in the neighbouring farmer's paddock, and the view from there was wonderful.

After we left Holehird, we had to wait one hour for the next ferry to take our car back across Windermere Lake so that we could visit Hill Top. Luckily there was an icecream stall beside the ferry queue...

In 1906, Beatrix Potter purchased a home and 34 acre working farm near Hawkshead, in the small village of Near Sawrey. This was to be her artist's retreat, and somewhere she could go to have a break from London. Miss Potter learned farming techniques and soon purchased additional properties in the area, and in the wider Lake District. Her solicitor, William Heelis, assisted in making these purchases, and the two became firm friends. In 1913, they married, and Hill Top Farm became their main home.
Hill Top Farm House
Beatrix Potter was very interested in the breeding and raising of sheep, and, over time, she was to win many prizes in local agricultural shows for her Herdwick sheep. (Sheep are a big thing in the lake district, and there were sheep things galore in the tourist and gift shops!)

Another thing that Potter was known for was her desire to conserve the Lake District. She restored and preserved the farms she purchased, keeping them running and applying new techniques to look after the health of the sheep. Potter also partnered with the National Trust, buying and managing a number of farms in Lancashire. Some of these farms, she sold back to the National Trust, and the rest she bequeathed in her will. Over 4,000 acres of land, sixteen farms and cottages, and all her sheep and cattle were given to the Trust (as well as most of the original drawings to her books).

Beatrix Potter died in 1943 (and her husband in 1945), having made a huge contribution to the preservation of the Lake District.

As we entered the gardens at Hill Top, I was thrilled to see an enclosed paddock full of plump rabbits. There were also lovely vegetable gardens, and in general the gardens were a lovely oasis - I can imagine feeling inspired to write children's books there!

You are not allowed to take any pictures inside the farm house, as flash photography can damage fabrics and paper. The house is very dark, as there is no lighting and the windows are small, and they do warn that if you go in winter you may not be able to see very much of the house!

The house is set up with Potter's furniture, and it feels as if she has just popped out and will be back at any moment. Several of her books were directly inspired by Hill Top Farm and the house, and the National Trust have set up books around the house showing that many of Potter's illustrations mirror her furniture, house, or gardens. In particular, The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or The Roly Poly Pudding is set inside Hill Top Farm, and was penned after an invasion of rats at the property. This is one of my favourite Potter stories, as I like the idea of the rats baking the naughty Tom Kitten inside a pudding!! Although I wouldn't be lining up to eat a piece of that pie...

The village of Near Sawrey really is very pretty, with most of the houses being built from slate, which is typical in the Lake District. We loved the area, and decided that if we ever come back to the UK (and win lotto) it would be wonderful to own a pretty cottage in a sweet village like this one - so deliciously English!

Well, all too soon it was time to say goodbye to the Lake District. We were pleased to have finally got a trip there, as it really was as picturesque as we had heard. For comparison purposes, it was similar to Queenstown (in NZ) though on a bigger scale, and with buildings that were so much more beautiful. We are going to miss that when we're home in NZ - the houses in Somerset/Wiltshire (around Bath) and in the Lake District are so pretty, and we have nothing like that in NZ. We will really miss the UK when we leave in a month's time!

Ambleside's pink sheep say farewell!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Buttermere and Mirehouse

On our second day in the Lake District, we took a pretty drive to Lake Buttermere. Lots of green mountains, stony rivers, and waterfalls. Simply gorgeous!

We stopped briefly at the slate mine at the top of the mountain range, but we had just missed the tour by ten minutes. So we drove on.
And saw this dude.

This is Lake Buttermere, by which we saw the oddly-shaven sheep. 
We followed the loop-road up past Buttermere, north to Cockermouth, and back around Bassenthwaite Lake. On the far side of the Lake, which is about 15 minutes drive from Keswick, we stopped at the Mirehouse.

Mirehouse is a pretty homestead that was built in 1666. In the 1800s, the house passed to the Spedding family, who had links to some of the great poets, including Lord Tennyson, who visited or stayed at the house.

From the grounds of the house you can take a 'romantic walk' (inspired by the romantic poets who visited the area) through the woods to a little Saxon church beside Lake Bassenthwaite. St Bega's Church dates to around AD950 and was dedicated to the Celtic Saint, Bega. The current frontage of the church dates to 1300, and it underwent further restoration in 1874. Lord Alfred Tennyson based the opening lines of his poem, 'Morte d'Artur', on this church. 

We then walked a loop track back to the homestead, I got stung viciously by stinging nettle, we passed some vintage farm machinery, and we walked the (newly-planted and thus not very challenging) maze in the grounds of Mirehouse. But, on to more important things.
This one's for you, Father Moffat.
Adam, mastering the maze.

Across the road from Mirehouse is a forest. A forest from which you can spy on nesting ospreys, a whole valley away. So we began the climb. And climbed some more, and some more, and - after a few more puffs on the ventolin - climbed some more. Finally we reached the osprey viewing point.

We only arrived five minutes before the volunteers who manned the binoculars were due to leave, so there was no time to take pictures. However we were very lucky and were able to catch a glimpse of the whole family - mum, dad, and two chicks, far across the valley. 

To give you an idea of how large ospreys are, this is a replica of a nest - complete with handsome osprey chick!

After the volunteers took their binoculars away, we walked back down the mountain, this time we used a different path, and found it was a bit less steep than the first. Though that may have been the illusion of travelling downhill...

Halfway, we came across a squirrel feeding box - empty - and some birds, a rabbit, and this colourful fellow.
A woodpecker gets some afternoon tea
Oh! Did I mention why we were nearly too late to view the ospreys? On our way up the mountain we came across a feeding box, and two cameras trained on it. We stopped and watched to see which creature was being streamed live to the internet. (Technophobes - this means that on some website on the internet, you could watch live as the cameras filmed the feeding box. It's a wonderful world.)

You guessed it - squirrels!!

In the next blog post, a visit to Beatrix Potter's house and, in the one after that, more squirrels!!