Blog Archives: Miscellaneous

Why Eyes?

      WHY EYES?                                       


Peacock butterfly flashes his wing –

Enough to startle a predator

Who may think again




Looking like a fearsome beast

This caterpillar may deter a bird

From making of him a feast





Could two extra eyes upon the shoulder

Make this bug

Feel even bolder?





Bold headlights of bright green and blue

Ommatidia by the thousand

Such a joy for me and you



A short break in Manchester and Chester

The latest in our series of explorations by rail of hitherto unknown (to us) parts of Britain took us last week to Manchester and Chester. Despite the weather, as always we had a superb time, taking in the architecture, art, culture, food, and even a little wildlife…

Manchester was a city of surprising delights, as surprising as discovering that Lowry was not a one-trick pony, but accomplished in a variety of styles. The modern architecture of Salford Quays, complemented by watery reflections, contrasted with the Victorian industrial heritage in the city, and we were especially impressed by the Metro linking the two. Clean, quiet, efficient – surely the way forward on urban transport.

As befits ‘the city built by the workers’, its bee symbol is celebrated proudly everywhere:

And it was gratifying to see real, useful, living bees and other wildlife being actively catered for, with flowery verges in places even in some of the most heavily developed areas.

We hadn’t expected to see much in the way of insects, especially given the weather forecast, but as always there were things to be found. By Salford Quays, ornamental Eleagnus bushes with seemingly every leaf supporting one, or a small flock, of Cacopsylla fulguralis, a recently-established, and spreading, native psyllid of Japan. A novel food source perhaps, but one which seems to be being exploited by the (similarly non-native) Harlequin Ladybirds and by the ant-like nymphs of the mirid bug Miris striatus.

In the same area, the waterside Alders were covered in hundreds of Alder Leaf-beetles Agelastica alni, recently re-established in Britain after an absence of 60 years, and now spreading out from the north-west. Including to our next destination, the banks of the River Dee in Chester…

Chester: a very different city which wears its antiquity on its sleeve, back to Roman times.

This is the city which seems to have grown out of the local rocks, the Red Sandstone, in places patterned like the hide of a giraffe, something we have seen previously in the north-east corner of Menorca.

Aside from Alder Leaf-beetles, Chester also came up, in one of the few dry moments, with this splendid, fresh Hawthorn Shield-bug, in fact the first we have seen this year.


Pipers at the Gates of Dawn

At the Gates of Dawn we stood and listened
To the piping song which filled our hearts
And souls with joy.

Why do they sing so?

At the Gates of Dawn we filled our lungs
And shouted out to the whole world
To announce the day.

Why do they listen so?

To survive we need to attract a mate,
Defend our space, alert a danger
Of a stranger.

That’s why we sing so.

In this world of greed we have a need
To feed on good things, calm things,

That’s why we listen so.

By Jude, inspired by our recent Dawn Chorus walk.


Extinction Rebellion: #WeAreWinning

Extinction Rebellion? You must have been living on another planet not to have heard of this environmental movement, and the impact it has been making not only on our capital, but all over the UK and the world in the past few days.  And depending on which press you choose to read, you will probably already have a pre-conceived idea of what the Rebels are all about…. litter-dropping, destructive and disruptive louts? or peace-loving people, caring about all of our futures?

We decided to find out for ourselves and went up to the old smoke on Tuesday.  On the approach to Parliament Square the rhythmic drumming of samba drums could be heard, beckoning us, but our first attempt at reaching the large crowd was foiled by a chain of police in hi-viz jackets blocking the route from Westminster station.  Frustration!  But we were spurred on by the many gently swaying flags held aloft by protestors in the square itself, particularly by a most beautiful one of a Garden Tiger Moth.  A very special creature to me, a fond reminder of my childhood when they were plentiful, but now sadly  now very rare, and possibly heading for extinction along with so many other species.

Undaunted, we found an alternative way in and discovered the Square to be full of many hundreds of gentle ‘rebellers’ –  individuals, couples, families and groups.  The drumming had temporarily ceased, and all were listening to the MC outlining the plan for the day (namely the writing of letters to our individual MPs and using our democratic right to request an audience with them, or at least to get the chance to deliver a letter).  Guest speakers provided inspiration and hope – Rupert Read, Green activist; Clive Lewis, MP for Norwich South,  and Lloyd Russell-Moyle, MP for Brighton Kemptown; we sang and listened to poetry.

The ‘sharing attitude’ of this movement was very apparent – total strangers offering suntan lotion, pens and paper to write letters, or just stopping to chat.  Free vegan food was available to all – served on paper plates with non-plastic cutlery.  Even with the lunch-time eating and drinking, no scrap of litter could be seen anywhere. Yes!!  A David Attenborough life-size cut-out figure looked down benignly on us all, and at least three protesters had set up camp high in the trees, complete with hammocks and ropes. Chris remarkably found himself sitting next to the son of a former colleague, whose website banner detailed the plight of the arctic ice. See


Having written our letters, with polite demands to support Caroline Lucas’ Early Day Motion 2177 signalling a UK-wide climate emergency, for radical rethinking of carbon policies, the formation of a People’s Assembly and most importantly for ‘them’ to tell the truth, we were shepherded over to Parliament House to (hopefully) get the chance to lobby our MP.  Fortunately being near the front of the queue meant only (!) an hour and a half’s wait but our fellow queuers were great company and the police and liaison officers are to be commended on their humour and efficiency – certainly no sign of heavy-handedness, but of course there was no need as everyone was perfectly calm and peaceful.

Unfortunately our MP, Bernard Jenkin, was ‘unavailable’ (as, shamefully, Theresa May was earlier in the day when Greta Thunberg dropped into the Houses of Parliament) but a group of us was addressed (and listened to) by Gillian Keegan, MP for Chichester.  And she did take on board some of our thoughts and proposals – eg why can’t all new properties be required to be built with solar roofs.  It seems so obvious, doesn’t it?

Whilst we were all in the waiting room as MPs were contacted but few materialised, a live screening of the climate change debate was being aired, in which Ed Miliband had asked searching questions of the Minister. It was disappointing to see how few MPs (particularly Tories it must be said) were actually in attendance at this most important of issues (surely?). However we must all rise above party politics in this emergency situation. We found the red-tape involved in trying to contact our elected representatives tiresome; unfortunately were ultimately unable even to leave a letter due to possible contamination and so instead we will be emailing and tweeting and posting our letter, so Mr Jenkin will be able to see how we are feeling.  If anyone reading this is minded to do similar then please do!

Despite these niggles, it was a fabulous, heart-warming day, well organised, calm, friendly with everyone on the same side.  Long may the movement continue; we shall support it as much as we can.

Such an important message held aloft for all to see here……and as another banner proclaimed ‘ Respect Existence, or Expect Resistance’.  Couldn’t have put it better myself…

Three days of World Heritage in the north….


UNESCO World Heritage Sites, those places of recognised cultural or natural importance to the whole world, come in many shapes and sizes. And all too often we run off to find those in far-flung corners of the world – take the Taj Mahal or the Great Barrier Reef, for example – but lose sight of those places and their fascinating stories almost on our doorstep.

So it was that we headed out for a few of days by rail last week (incredible value at less than £70 in total, with railcard and Advance tickets) to two of the British sites that neither of us had visited before, Saltaire and Durham, both cultural sites but from very different eras.

Evening in Saltaire was foggy and intensely atmospheric, the diffuse lights in an industrial landscape seemingly transporting us into the art of Atkinson Grimshaw, and perfect for displaying the street art of their Living Advent Calendar.


Next morning, still grey skies but the fog had lifted, to reveal the Victorian ‘model village’ industrial architecture for which this site is inscribed on the UNESCO list. The eponymous Sir Titus Salt consolidated his textile empire and all its processes under one roof, on a greenfield site away from the worst of the pollution from West Yorkshire’s ‘dark, satanic mills’, and then set about consolidating his workforce there too, with purpose-built housing, social and civic facilities, astride the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, a vital artery for trade. While it undoubtedly benefitted his bottom-line, Salt’s philanthropy is remarkable by today’s standards. And the workers must have relished the opportunity to escape from some of the worst Victorian slums in Bradford.


Salts Mill itself has had a chequered history, almost falling to the demolishers until taken over in the 1980s by a latter-day philanthropist Jonathan Silver, who recognised its potential for post-industrial uses, including as an art space. Recognised AND realised to a considerable extent, though the site is huge and much still awaits transformation. Good reason to pay a return visit? Certainly if the art on display remains as exciting. David Hockney is a great supporter of the Mill, and we had chance to see a range of his work, including some of his most innovative pieces, including his fax-art from the 80s and the more recent i-pad art. His sequence ‘The Arrival of Spring’ particularly spoke to me, based as it is on Woldgate, near Bridlington, one of my childhood stamping-grounds as a budding naturalist.

Thence to Durham, much more classically historical and ‘chocolate-box’ beautiful, nestling within a tortuous loop of the River Wear. The view of the Cathedral and Castle, familiar to anyone who has travelled the East Coast Mainline, was the original inspiration for this trip when travelling down from Edinburgh in the summer, and as we arrived in the dark, it was suitably, dramatically lit, inviting our exploration.

And then again by day, the Cathedral especially magnificent both outside and especially in. Such a pity that, with the angles and light, ornamentation, stained glass and wall art, all inspirational subjects, no photography is allowed inside…but it was still worth the visit. Then there was so much more, the lanes and street layouts, churches and even more modern, though still classic, architecture like the 1960s concrete bridge of Ove Arup. Another familiar from my past, as an alumnus of UEA, where brutalist concrete set the backdrop for my early twenties.

But perhaps best of all, no doubt in part due to the welcome emergence of the sun, was the setting of the city – castle and cathedral as ever-present sentinels above the riverside walks. And there we could indulge in a little pre-Christmas wildlife watching (so much less stressful than shopping!), with Goosanders on the river and fungi fruiting among the trees, including Judas’ Ear, surprisingly on a Sycamore stump, its usual host being Elder.



Book Review: The Orphaned Spaces

For me it all began in the mid-1970s with the publication of Richard Mabey’s ‘The Unofficial Countryside’. As a naturalist and proto-conservationist, I had grown up fascinated by wildlife in close proximity to humans, in those places without a name apart from ‘wasteland’; at last there was a suitable, non-pejorative name for the places I inhabited as a child, chasing butterflies, building dens, and generally finding my own space.

My fascination with the unofficial countryside has remained unabated. As a professional conservationist one of my proudest achievements was the safeguarding of Canvey Wick (see blog), and the acceptance of what had now become called brownfield or post-industrial land, as having a legitimate part to play in ’proper’ nature conservation.

Forty years on, and there is a new book, introducing a new name – The Orphaned Spaces – written by MW Bewick and illustrated by Ella Johnston. And a new approach, going behind the science and the evident conservation values, into the personal reflections on how such places help mark the passage of time and of our lives. The poetic prose transports me to every orphaned space I have ever been and conjures up the unpredictable magic of the interface between human decay and natural bounty.

Written in diary format, mostly during the winter months, it also succeeds for me in highlighting the role of such places in guiding us through the low season. I am one of those who lives in the shadow of the winter gloom, from autumn equinox until the advancing daylength of January; the improbable pinpricks of nature which adorn our orphaned spaces are essential signposts to a brighter future. This book thus neatly bridges one Mabey theme – Unofficial Countryside – to another – Nature Cure.

The text may seem sparse, but sometimes just a few words can convey meaning which punches above their weight. Take the entry for 24 July:

Travelling thugs on the banks of the river by the derelict furniture warehouse. Giant hogweed and Himalayan balsam are rough brutes. The sewerage pipe trickles into the murk of almost stagnant water and the banks are littered with human detritus. A muddy trainer. Plastic bottles and old tin cans. A jumper. A half-submerged supermarket trolley. Just who is the invasive species?

…thus taking this book into the sphere of natural philosophy, giving voice to some of the questions which need repeating over and over in the modern world of spurious civilisation.

Of course as a scientist and therefore a nit-picker, I have my quibbles. The failure to observe standard typographic representation of scientific names for example. And the assertion of 1 May that ‘There is unique quality to overlooked spaces. More bio-diverse than an arable field.’ – damning with faint praise, to anyone with an ecological background. But such quibbles miss the point of the book…and the fact that I happily read it in one sitting should speak volumes.

And then there’s the subtitle. ‘The Orphaned Spaces: Waste ground explored’. Yes, maybe we called it wasteground as kids, but the adjectival use of ‘waste’, without even ironic quotation marks, upsets me greatly. And I think to anyone who approaches this book with an enquiring mind, you will find its thoughtful contents give the lie to the subtitle.

The Orphaned Spaces‘ by MW Bewick & Ella Johnston, publisher Dunlin Press, 2018.

Price £9.99 from Dunlin Press Online Shop.

Also available is a made-to-order boxed set, which should be a thing of beauty as well as a stimulating read.

For more on the wonders of our unofficial countryside, see my blogs on Canvey Wick and Gunnersbury Triangle, and for the delights of post-industrial ‘dereliction’ Orfordness and Wapping Hydraulic Power Station