Friday, 30 October 2009

Bats & badgers & owls! Oh, my! :Sandsend

Took this one on our last night in the north east. This is Whitby Harbour from the swing bridge just as the light is fading. We all had a pizza before having a drink at a quayside pub. Believe it or not a bat flitted out into the lamp light just as I was drinking my cider. It just looked like somebody was dangling it on a string like in the old black and white Dracula movies. But it was a real bat and there was no string or dangler to be seen. We drove back to the Raithwaite estate for the last time. During the day pheasants would often leap out of the lane side greenery, forcing us to drive very slow for fear of hitting one. It was quite dark by this hour. As we drove along the final bit of lane to Home Farm, Phil pointed out something crossing the road in front of us. It was a large badger going about its business. It shuffled across in front of us and trundled up a dark alley, its silvered fur disappearing into the blackness like a ghost. Just as we reached Home Farm and opened the car doors a male Tawny Owl hooted. Almost immediately another male Tawny hooted an answer to the challenge from a different angle. Debbie started hooting along with them.
"You're making them think there are loads of male intruders," I ventured.
"How do you do the female call then?" Debbie asked.
"You can't. It's too high pitched. Sort of ewick-ewick." I made no attempt to sound like an owl.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Whitby Abbey: Sandsend

I decided to stay in the next day accompanied by my C.J.Cherryh book, Harry and some cheese. Debbie and Phil walked it into Whitby. It was a very misty day, which isn't that unusual in these parts. They visited the ruined Whitby Abbey which dated back to 657AD.The last time I'd been up there it had been blowing a gale. Its first Abbess was Saint Hilda whose influential history is documented by the Venerable Bede. The Abbey has had a turbulent history, first being sacked by Vikings in 867AD and later falling fowl of the Dissolution of the Monasteries during Henry VIII's reign.
The Abbey was also the home of Caedmon the first recorded English poet who lived and wrote here in the seventh century. The Bede also wrote about him. Caedmon's oeuvre was entirely religious and devotional, the style of which first came to him as a dream when he was working as a herdsman for the monastery.

Debbie bought a box of cream cakes and walked the full three miles or so back to Home Farm with the box held out in front of her. When she put the box down her arms were still locked in their zombie grasp position. The cakes were very nice though. She'd cooked a chicken the day before and we had a wishbone to pull. We made our wishes. I won. Which hardly matters as I expect we had the same wish anyhow.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Ancient trees: Sandsend

What a day for meeting some really ancient trees it was. You can't really feel the age of these trees in photographs in the same way that you do sat next to them. Historic as the castle was, it didn't really connect you to the past in any way. Sure you can read up on its history but with a tree you don't have to. Its history is all there on every twist of branch, scarred amputation and its questing height. And it's still alive with new history yet to bud.
Having contemplated trees, trains and ducks we returned to Sandsend for a quiet pub lunch and a drink. After that we visited Mulgrave Woods just as Mina and Lucy did in the early portion of Bram Stoker's classic vampire novel Dracula. I believe this was the only day of the week during our short break that the wood was open to the public. A stream runs alongside the path back toward the sea. I don't really get to go that far into many woods as the paths are not always the best for exploring wheelchair users but in this case I did manage to forge a little way in at least. We turned around when we got to the logging buildings. Probably just as well. In previous years separate parties of family members have ventured too far in here and ended up quite lost. Harry was loving it of course. He also found himself a suitable stick.
We left the woods and were confronted with the best duck photo opportunity of the week. Harry ignored them as another Labrador approached. Both dogs were wary that the other coveted their stick too much. So what was the photo opportunity? I'll tell you. A great line of ducks stood along the grass verge looking down to the stream below. All posing. Some spreading their wings. I have no idea what they were doing but it looked great.But my camera battery was dead and Debbie had filled hers up with pictures of steam locomotives. Shame. Phil left to get some more vittles and stuff from the village shop. Debbie and I went and looked at the sea. Two riders made their way down to the beach. One of them was a young girl on a pony. The pony was not very happy at having to cross a very shallow stream that fed into the sea. They tried everything to try to get it across. Eventually it got the idea.
We loaded up and drove back to the Raithwaite Estate. I think Phil quite liked the electronic security gates.
That night was a really clear night. You could see all the stars arcing above us. I tried to read but zonked out on the first page. I woke up blinking and wondering where I was about an hour later. Sitting on the bed next to me was a black cat. Even though I was sleep befuddled my brain was still sharp as a razor. I reached out for it grunting a perspicacious, "Urr, cat?" But my hand just grasped thin air. It was a shadow. But it had looked just like a small black cat.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Pickering Station: Sandsend

From our vantage at Pickering Castle we could see the old stream rail track. Making our way back down Debbie spotted a stream train getting ready to depart the station. This railway station has been restored in recent years to what it would have looked like in the 1930s. At the end of the week a special event was being organised with people dressed up in authentic costume, bringing that era back to life for a day at least. The little station has been used many times in television dramas and movies including Sherlock Holmes. Another station along the line was used in the Harry Potter films. The steam locomotive Debbie was snapping was one of only two survivors of its specific type, eleven of which were originally constructed during and in the decade after the First World War. The 18 mile long heritage line is one of the longest working steam locomotive lines in the country, the locomotives now plying their trade thrilling modern day tourists and enthusiasts. Whitby is now included in the connected route and it is hoped that one day the line will reconnect to Scarborough. The original line built in the mid 1850s was responsible for turning Whitby into a town popular with day-trippers and holiday makers.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

The Creature From Cleveland Depths

I used to read a lot of Fritz Leiber's work when I was younger. This one's a sharp little novella with the somewhat prescient speculative warning of the dangers of allowing machines to think for us and organize our lives. What is so clever about that, you might say, as you fiddle with your gadget of the week, or take that fifth call of the hour on your mobile/blackberry/pager. Very clever indeed if you consider this was first published in a pre-internet 1962. Leiber doesn't just throw up an idea and leave it hanging though. He makes the reader ask questions and wonder if some ideas change the world too much. Reading the story today is a much different experience than reading it decades ago because human invention has so radically changed the way we exist from day to day already. Back then the story was a mildly disturbing speculative piece, with ideas and gimmickry evolving like a virus or a new form of life. Today, in some respects, we are on the brink of doing just what the story warns against.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Whitby Harbour reflections

I took this shot in Whitby Harbour last week. Cormorants were diving for fish here. This gull, sitting on the boat, thinks that sounds too much like hard work.

Pickering Castle: Sandsend

After admiring Pickering's ducks we had a look around one of its other attractions - Pickering Castle. The structure was first established under William the Conqueror in 1069-1070, though its stony solidity was only added in the centuries that followed under a succession of rulers. Sadly entry beyond the castle gates was closed at this time of the year. Maybe next time. Not to be dissuaded by the partial access we got a good look at the curtain wall and its towers. An impressive structure indeed. And damn spooky too, with its filmic crows settling in poses on the stonework that would have had Poe scrabbling for a suitably Gothic phrase.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Raithwaite Lake: Sandsend

Just south of our cottage on the Raithwaite estate is a thriving lake. Debbie took this shot of the ducks enjoying the facilities. When I went down there with my camera to stock up on my duck pictures they'd all vanished.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Phantoms: Sandsend

The mystery of the thing in the ceiling was answered by a flurry of arrival; bushy grey tail trailing, scampering hops, alert eyes, grasping paws and furiously sharp teeth. Otherwise know as The Grey Squirrel. He scrambled along the fencing to and from our cottage to take his seat on our bird table, whereupon he would lounge about stuffing his cheeks with our fat balls. When he got tired or too full he would retire to his little mezzanine apartment between floors of Home Farm. Perhaps the property description should be amended: sleeps eight plus one squirrel. Knowing it was a squirrel in the roof rather than a rat was a great improvement. And the scratching noise was never so frequent or annoying again.
Debbie decided that Home Farm wasn't very spooky. So I showed her some snaps I'd taken of the living room the evening before. I billed them as containing light anomalies. Debbie and Phil looked at them and said 'hmmm'. "Look at that pattern," I said, "in the centre of the room - see how it reoccurs in this other photograph taken from the other side of the room, looking back over the same spot.' Admittedly the spooky lights looked a lot more convincing on the camera's LCD than on these full sized shots. Though apparently Debbie later had some dreams about these 'light anomalies', and she would waste no time getting back to the living area after switching the upstairs lights off from then on.

I found some other blog entries about Sandsend from other folk.
Little Brown Job & Snow Babies.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Whitby Town: Sandsend

We made our pilgrimage into Whitby town. We had been promised fine, mild weather for the week and we got it. Often there is an icy wind whipping off the North Sea into our faces but today it was as pleasant as ever a sunless October day in the North East could be. Taking advantage of the weather we went all the way along the pier walk and took some shots of the coastline.
The crowds that usually throng the streets in Spring and Summer were much thinned, though the gulls didn't seem to care what season it was. Fishing village = freshly caught fish = let's party. The cormorants in the harbour were happy to catch their own fish, thank you very much, and demonstrated how the real experts did it. We stopped to get a picture of one that had swum quite close but the bird dived under water before I could focus. We waited for the bird to surface but it must have come up on the other side of the Grand Turk.
A trip to Whitby Town wouldn't be complete without fish n' chips from the Magpie so that was the next order of the day. Harry was enjoying himself as we trekked up and down the quayside, looking in the gift shops, ducking the gulls and slurping tea in a secluded corner. A small black cat stared over its shoulder at us as it glided up some stone steps in a shadowy alley.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

I don't need much excuse to start reading some ghost stories, so it's no surprise that my break to Sandsend, in that haunted month called October, would include a whole volume of spooktacular tales finding their way onto my reading list. This second collection of creepy tales doesn't quite match M.R. James' first Antiquarian collection. The first three stories are nicely told but not quite up to being part of the ghost story top of the pops that filled the first volume. The last four are much better, including the brilliant Casting the Runes, which has been adapted for television twice and was also made into the classic horror film Night of the Demon (must rewatch this one soon) from 1957. Like many of James stories it doesn't include a conventional ghost but in this case focuses mainly on the misuse of witchcraft. The Stalls of Barchester is also pretty good and was one of the BBC's Christmas ghost story adaptations from the 1970s. The strength of James work lies in bringing such stories into the everyday world, diminishing the reader's sense of distance or disconnection from the proceedings even now a century after their first publication.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Home Farm: Sandsend

The journey to Sandsend from Blackburn is about three hours. "Collect the keys at 3:00pm," they said. We arrived at 2:59pm. Aha - a good omen. A small dog called Otis appeared, as the repeated but ineffectual repeating of it's name testified. He charged about like a golden ball of fur pretending to be in a pinball machine. "Well he's not very well behaved." The booking office had been very keen on our somewhat larger dog being of a well behaved disposition.
We unpacked our stuff into the cottage and started oohing and ahhing over the large kitchen and all its culinary toys. "What do you think this is for?" asked Phil holding up a chrome something-or-other. We shook our heads in bewilderment.
Outside we have our own little network of gardens and paths overlooking a little pool-stream-waterfall ensemble. Harry is very impressed. We spot a young Moorhen swimming about. Debbie comments that one of the fat balls she has hung from the bird table has been dragged onto the table top. Weird. Could our neighbour have done that? The bird table is on the fence between us and next door.
Deb and Phil go out for a walk to scout the nearby lay of the land. Before-long they ran into a beastie. "Is that a cow or a bull?" The beastie starts to move towards them. They run and before you know it some more beasties have joined in the fun and we have a full scale cow chase on our hands again. Actually this happens quite a lot.
We have a sandwich and discuss the latest cow chase. I go and inspect the on-suite wet-room. Debbie examines the slightly sloped floor and the drain beneath the shower fittings and expresses skepticism over the room's drainage potential. Later Phil decides that he has to experience the delights of the wet-room in full flow. He blithely enjoys himself for a few minutes before having to abort abruptly. Debbie was right to be skeptical as we narrowly avoid a major flood. On further testing we discover the system can only handle one of the shower jets at half power. Any more than that requires a swimming certificate or at the very least some well inflated water-wings.
Choosing bedrooms is easy. I'm the downstairs bedroom next to the flood-potential-room. Phil is upstairs and has the run of several bedrooms including a cosy loft option. A large bang rings out from up there as Debbie nearly brains herself on the low roof beams. Looks like we are having an Inspector Clouseau day though thankfully my involvement so far is limited to a little tea spillage. Debbie decides to stay on the couch as Harry isn't used to sleeping alone and he definitely isn't allowed on the beds. I stay up very late reading ghost stories and wrestling with the memory foam mattress. I eventually call it a day and switch the lamp off. Whooah. Pitch black. Not used to that. There is always a streetlamp nearby in all the houses I've ever lived in. Some time later I get to sleep. I'm woken maybe an hour later by some scritching and scratching. "Whassat?" Maybe it's a fox messing about outside, I think. I'm too tired to investigate and the memory foam says, "Don't even think about sitting up." Anyhow it can't be a fox because the noise is coming from above. Debbie pads in and says, "Can you hear that scratching? Is it a rat?" Who knows what it is. Debbie abandons the couch and gets Phil to come down and keep Harry company. Phil says he hasn't heard anything. Will the mystery be solved? Find out in the next blog entry coming soon. Sleep tight.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Prologue: Sandsend

This week we took a short break to Sandsend near Whitby, staying in a cottage on the Raithwaite estate. We've stayed in the area several times before though never in this location and never so late in the year. Previously our chosen haunt was an old converted schoolhouse, also in Sandsend but, sadly for us, recently renovated into a new hotel style complex painted so white any self respecting ghost would most likely pack up his chains and flit. This new location, stuffed to the rafters with mod cons, surely couldn't compete with the olde worlde, spook packed vibe of our schoolhouse could it? Stay tuned as things really are going to go bump in the night as we discover we aren't alone in our temporary new home. The mist will rise among sailors' graves, owls will hoot, bats will flutter, spectral lights will bedevil us, black cats will be shadows in the night and ghostly travelers will cross our paths in moonlight.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Stay in the light

I think Harry picked up the habit of finding a sunlit spot from me. If there is a spot of sunlight in the room when I turn up he often forgoes offering up a welcome and makes a bee-line for the light. He knows I'll be heading that way after I've collected my reading matter. "I was here first," his body language says. He'll move if you ask him though.
I was going to crop this one more severely but it seemed to destroy the mood of the shot.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Autumn gold

This is the the large tree opposite our front lawn. It had a lot of its lower branches sawed off last winter by the land owner. During the spring and summer months the greenery helps to hide its scars but as you can see the green is turning brown and it will soon be standing naked in the winter light.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Silent on the Moor

Deanna Raybourn's books are very easy to read. She can write a bit but doesn't really succeed at doing more than providing anything more substantial than a bit of light entertainment. This is the third book in the series. With a name like Silent on the Moor I was hopeful that she could pull off some good evocations of what it is like to live on a moor. I live on the edge of a Lancastrian moor myself, so I know there is a wealth of natural beauty and wildlife available to use to colour the narrative. Unfortunately our Lady Julia's eye only manages to see the people that live on the moor, the only wildlife are the pets and the six sheep that are alluded to though never seen. Other than it being wet, grassy, with the odd crag or bog, the moor has to make do with turning silvery in moonlight for its descriptive wiles. The characters are amusing, though there seems to be less and less wit as this series progresses and Brisbane has entirely become a caricature, a Heathcliff shaped silhouette for Lady Julia to play with. As detectives both characters are terribly inept, their modus operandi seems to mainly involve them pottering about waiting for the answers to come to them. In the gaps between pottering they mainly argue and pretend they aren't madly in love with one another. The only real mystery in this book is how on earth Deanna Raybourn manages to get through the entire writing process without using the word 'décolletage' once. My guess is there is a previous draft copy somewhere with the word scribbled out 137 times with an editorial footnote reminding the author of the chilliness of Yorkshire moors. The weirdest thing of all though is that I keep reading them.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

On the frog path

When we've had a bit of rain the hills and moors above our house start soaking it up like a sponge. The next heavy downpour can't do anything else but sluice down the hill through our back gardens. Parts of the garden turn into little waterfalls, washing loose dirt and detritus off the hill onto our patio. Sometimes the water carries living things down with it as well, like this frog. Today the heavens opened and brought us two hopping visitors. One of the frogs somehow contrived to sneak into the house. It managed to evade us for a while, hiding under the furniture but eventually we managed to capture the little chap so that we could release it safe and sound outside. Then we discovered it had brought a friend (picture here & above). It seemed quite happy for a while but then it started trying to hop a four foot wall back into the garden but its hops were barely clearing a foot. We gave it a helping hand and it disappeared into the wet and green.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Owl on the prowl

Our Tawny Owls are back. So far we've only heard one calling out in the dark; no male call - just the female. Before last winter's chainsaw madness you could hear both members of the family unit calling out to each other nearly every night. We reckon they were driven away by the constant disturbance and it's quite possible that their roost was either lopped off or felled. So this newcomer might not even be one of our much loved pair. I've heard it three or four times in the last week. Debbie heard the owl making quite a bit of noise at 5am in the morning. She looked out and saw the bird perched on the tv aerial on the roof of the farm house.
A few years ago a story was reported on about a man who used to imitate the Tawny Owl's call to get a neighborhood owl to call back to him. He kept up the habit for years until one day he discovered that there had never ever been an owl to call to. A neighbour had unknowingly been doing exactly the same thing all the time.
The picture above is from an ancient bird book of mine: Birds of Field and Forest - first printed in 1959. My copy is from 1964. Each bird has a full colour page plate painting opposite its description. The pictures are quite well done, though maybe a bit posed. Modern bird books tend to exaggerate the plumage colours and features, whereas these are duller and darker than life, though this could be down to the printing process and the original artworks might have been much brighter.
Tawny Owl picture © 1959 Paul Hamlyn Ltd and Artia.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

On the trail of summer

Autumn has snuck up on us again. Hope everybody enjoyed their summer. There was a summer there wasn't there? Glimpses. If summer could be compared to a movie, I would say we only got to see the trailer before the projector broke. Did the butterflies enjoy it? Debbie seems to think so. She enjoyed capturing some images of the little flutterers on her flowers. The garden did a fair job this year of attracting both insects and birds.
October also means the start of the dreaded Badminton season. Much rushing about and bolting of meals will occur and Harry will lie in wait for big hugs twice a day, instead of just the one big teatime collision of clumsy legs and whirring tail. Debbie will have to catch up on her Gardener's World on iplayer. At least it keeps her fit.
Autumnwatch is back again. Surely Springwatch was only on last week. New format. Weekly episodes. Hmmm. I'm not a big fan of Chris Packham. He's ok in small doses and he knows his stuff but he tends to set me slightly on edge and I can feel my irritation levels creeping up inexorably every moment he is on screen. Not too relaxing a chap. The sad thing is he seems to know he is irritating and plays up to it. And where have the nature reserves gone? I know it is pitch black at 9:00pm but surely they could have done better than a Bristol office car park, lunchbreak bench and the little broom cupboard studio for the dynamic duo to do their blurbs from. On the positive side the films were improved on recent years and we had no repeats of last year's Simon King filming sea-weed sessions. Highlights for me were the red deer on Rum with Percy, the shrew and the brilliant Knapdale beavers.