Blog Archives: Travel by Rail

Eastern Scotland by train: Forth Rail Bridge, York and the journey home…

Our final morning in Aberdeen, and the rain has arrived. Overnight the granite city has become the dour granite city! Such a monochromatic contrast to yesterday…

We broke the journey south for three hours by the Firth of Forth, changing on to a stopping train at Inverkeithing where a Hawthorn Shield-bug sidled across the platform, another insect towards the northern end of its UK distribution. We rescued it from trampling feet!

Then a couple of stops down the line and across the rail bridge to Dalmeny. A wander down through the woods, past fruiting Rowans and Speckled Wood butterflies, brought us to the shore and its wonderful views of the iconic Forth Rail Bridge, with the modern road bridges further west.

The best thing was the fact that against all forecasts, the sun re-emerged, lighting the bridge and its rusty colour. Simply magnificent!

Out on the water, solitary Guillemots and small rafts of Razorbills were loafing and diving:

South Queensferry was busy (a cruise ship was moored just downstream) but lovely …

… and all too soon, it was back on the train and into a now-dismal England. Overnight in York the rain continued, so next day we had a wet wander round the walls, with Wall-rue ferns and Shaggy Soldiers.

Most interesting was the sight of snails (mostly Banded Snails with just a few Garden Snails) on certain sections, the only likely dry-weather refuges being the grassy embankments four or five metres below.

Into a pub to shelter, we suddenly realised our holiday was ticking away, and sought the wild once more. After checking numerous Senecios in vain, from Common and Sticky Groundsels to Oxford and Narrow-leaved Ragworts (it was only with close scrutiny that I realised how much the old flowerheads in rain look like sea-anemones!) …

 …. and along a steeply sloping concrete embankment of the Ouse we at last found the prize, the locally endemic York Groundsel. A fertile hybrid between Groundsel and Oxford Ragwort, it is surprisingly distinctive with eight yellow rays. What’s more, this is a de-extincted plant. First found and named Senecio eboracensis in the 1970s, by the noughties it was globally extinct in the wild, a victim of City Council herbicide profligacy. Thankfully the Millennium Seedbank at Wakehurst Place had some seeds, which were grown on and enabled its return to the wild earlier this summer.

Sadly we were unable to find the other York speciality, Tansy Beetle, except in art form, despite some good stands of the foodplant. A good reason for us to return.

And so our holiday drew to a close. Five nights, six days, and five rail journeys which thanks to early booking and a railcard cost just a couple of hundred pounds!

Eastern Scotland by train: Aberdeen, the Granite City

We saw Aberdeen at its best, at least for our one full day there, in sunlight and under azure skies. Far from being the monochrome, grey granite city of repute, the sunlight brought the stone and the city to life.

 

Once again it was a whirlwind mix of culture and wild. The city centre has lots of monumental buildings, photogenic in the right light …

… and especially down by the docks, the cityscape is enlivened by equally monumental street art.

 

Union Terrace Gardens, recently remodelled, provided a wonderful pocket of green, set off by impressive modern constructions:

And the gardens themselves are full of interesting plants, and plenty of insect activity. What’s not to love about a garden that features apparently deliberate ornamental plantings of Timothy grass!

 

Out then to Old Aberdeen, a world away from the bustle of the modern city into the historic seat of learning, and modern place for leisure and pleasure.

Attractive buildings and cobbled street scenes in abundance are laced with the ever-present colours of Fuchsia…

 

… and the lovely Cathedral of St Machar, with its impressive ceiling, stained glass and rough stone walls.

Nearby, the Botanic Garden. There is no truth in the rumour that our trips are planned around places like this! Just as with Dundee, the garden is full of light and life, colour and interest.

And almost next door, into Seaton Park, a mix of cultivated ‘wild’ and natural green space, the latter running down to the wildness of the River Don, with Goosanders  and the sound of rushing water.

But as is so often the case it was the ornamental gardens forming the main focus of insect activity:

Back to the Fuschia, it was interesting to watch the way that Honeybees were getting the nectar without delivering on their side of the pollination bargain, chewing through the base of the flower tube to get at it. In fact, on close examination, almost every flower had been on the receiving end of nectar thieves.

But as we headed back to the hotel, so the sun disappeared, cloud was spreading in, and change was afoot, ready for the next phase of our holiday, the two-day journey home…

Eastern Scotland by train: the wilder side of Dundee

Everywhere we go, whether countryside or city, we seek, and usually find, nature. In Dundee, it was right outside the hotel, with Guillemots and Cormorants fishing offshore, Shore Crabs scrambling through the exposed seaweed, and everywhere Lesser Black-backed Gulls seeking an easy meal from the outside tables.

Ornamental plantings around the V&A attracted our attention because of the dozens of Rosemary Beetles, here towards the northern end of their current range. But for some unknown reason there was not one on the various labiates (their recognised foodplants) planted there. All were on Stipa and other ornamental grasses, something we have never seen before; a plea on Twitter failed to come up with an adequate explanation, nor indeed other examples of this mystery phenomenon.

One of the main street trees around the redevelopment of the waterfront are a form of Elm, and on many of the larger specimens, the trunks were patterned with lichens and Horse Chestnut Scale-insects.

Around the old Victoria Dock, as is typical of such former industrial areas, a brownfield flora has established, Buddleia being a major component, mixed with a few maritime species like Sea Mayweed.

And the funnel of the rusting lightship has been colonised by very artistic lichenscapes, no doubt in part a result of the nutrient from bird droppings.

The Botanic Garden was just lovely, one of the better such gardens of the many we have visited in my opinion.

Of course it featured many attractive and interesting plants from around the world…

 …. many of which were feeding insects in the warm, sunny weather.

At the heart of the garden is a very impressive attempt to recreate the full range of locally native habitats, from sand dunes, to Caledonian pine forest and montane cliffs.

These habitat zones were a great opportunity to see rarities that need a hard slog and much remote searching to find in the wild, such as Dwarf Birch, Mountain Sorrel and Woolly Willow…

… while Devil’s-bit Scabious in full flower seemed an irresistible draw to numerous hoverflies.

From Birch Shield-bugs on the Silver Birch trees to epiphytic lichens in the branches, and fungi sprouting from the mulch, the whole area hosted the whole spectrum of native wildlife…

… including a distinctively shaped, blackish carrion beetle (playing dead at first) we identified as Phosphuga atrata, something we haven’t seen before although it is widespread across the country.

Always something of interest to find in a new area, but after a couple of days it was time to get back onto the train to head up the coast to Aberdeen…

 

 

Eastern Scotland by train: Dundee – architecture and art

A couple of weeks ago as the south baked under an unprecedented September heatwave, we had fortuitously booked a rail trip to eastern Scotland where although still lovely and sunny, the temperatures were much more amenable.

This is the first of four blogs covering those six days. Dundee for the first two nights proved to be very exciting and full of interest, and now for me a real challenger to Glasgow as my favourite Scottish city. In no small part that is down to the best-located Premier Inn we have ever been to, overlooking the ever changing beauty of the Firth of Tay, the road and rail bridges spanning the water east and west respectively.

A couple of hundred metres along the waterfront is its cultural heart, the magnificent new V&A design museum, the thing that drew us to Dundee in the first place.

A shapeshifter of a building, close up it seems to be a heavily stratified sea cliff…

… while walking into and under it has all the echoing moistness of a remote sea cave, with ever-changing reflectascapes in its rockpools:

From further away, it transforms into a cruise liner echoing Dundee’s past as a major trading port.

And then from another angle, it is nothing less than an snapping leviathan from the deep – yes, the city has a whaling past too.

A delight to be alongside, at any time of night or day:

Inside the museum there’s some photogenic building design features and interesting artwork and exhibits:

Alongside the V&A is berthed the RRS Discovery, Scott’s vessel for his first Antarctic expedition, with visitor centre:

And the Slessor Gardens, full of sculpture, art… and yes plants too, including fences cleverly reflecting the organised chaos of a reedbed!

 

Then we came to the Tay Road Bridge, a low-rise affair, but providing remarkable disappearing vistas through its underbelly…

And finally on the waterfront (for now – there are plans for an Eden Project there in the gasworks of the old East Dock), the transformed docks surrounded by historic (and modern) buildings. The dock has its historic vessels too, the HMS Unicorn and a lightship rusting into oblivion in a very fetching manner.

Away from the water, the jute-milling past of the city is now firmly in the past:  the many jute mills have mostly been demolished or repurposed as flats. But one remains to keep the memory alive, the Verdant Works museum. Described to us by a friend as ‘the best museum ever’, the other reason for us visiting Dundee, and we found it hard to disagree with that assessment.

 

Other cityscapes included the two hills rising out of it, numerous chimneys, churches, art and other buildings, many in a pleasing warm local red sandstone that didn’t match our southerners’ preconception of a dour Scots town (helped by the sunshine and blue skies!).

Our final main location was of course the Botanic Garden. More about the plants and other wildlife there in the next blog, but it also features interesting art and sculpture, along with views across the firth.

It probably says something about our age, but a highlight of our walk home from the Botanic Garden around Balgay Hill  was what we both agreed was the most comfortable park seat ever. Well done to the City Council!

More than enough to keep us fully entertained for a couple of days, it is a city to which I suspect we will return.

 

Heading Westwards Part 2: … and the power showers of South Wales

Leaving Bath for the last half of our three-day train trip, it was under the Severn, out of the sun and into the rain of the Vale of Glamorgan.

Llantwit Major, close to the south coast, has a beach with cliffs, a view over the Bristol Channel to Exmoor, and is a place where the vegetation is sculpted by salt-laden sea-spray:

This close to the warmth of the sea, pushed inland by incessant south-westerlies, the landscape also features a suite of plants we are less used to seeing in winter-chilled and droughted Essex, at least in such bounty. Chusan Palms are scattered around, including in the churchyard,  while every stone wall is festooned with Ivy-leaved Toadflax:

In field corners and gardens, Monbretia is naturalized in golden swathes …

and the hedgerows are largely of Fuchsia, now in full bloom.

Notwithstanding the Fuchsia originate from South America, they seem to be much used by local bees, including Common Carders, Honeybees and Buff-tailed Bumbles. In abundance – between the showers every bush was a-buzzing:

St Illtyd’s church is a fascinating place. Looking every bit a ‘standard’ parish church, it is the site of one of the earliest seats of Christian learning in the country, and its internal features reflect that, with remarkable mediaeval wall paintings:

But most impressive of all are the Celtic stones, covered in symbols and inscriptions that hark back to a pagan past. Corralled together inside the restored chapel they are to my mind a little out of context – cut off from the spirits of the outdoors, from which they derive their symbolic power …

… but at least they are protected from the elements, which showed their force as we sheltered inside!

And Nature is never too far away. The stonework at the restored end of the building features an ammonite fossil …

… and the churchyard itself is far from being an over-tidied, pesticide-poisoned waste, the fate of all too many even in these relatively ecologically enlightened times.

It may have been only a short break, but we covered a lot of ground at leisure, and were able to immerse ourselves in landscapes and weather we are most unused to at home!

Heading Westwards Part 1: relaxing in a hot Bath…

Three hours on a train brought us to a very hot and sunny Bath for a full day of exploration, after years since either of us had been there. And the first impression, particularly in the sun, set against blue skies, was a city defined by, almost hewn out of, its local geology: the beautiful honey-coloured oolitic limestone.

All the classic elements of architecture share the limestone in a remarkable, World Heritage display of geoconcordance, from the Abbey…

 

… to the Roman Baths (notwithstanding the considerable inducements not to sit on the stone shelves!) …

… to the Circus, with its wonderful quincunx of massive Plane trees (sadly under threat, we later learned) …

…and the Royal Arcade …

.. as well as less renowned vistas throughout the city.

So many ‘cliffs’, it is not surprising that there were Peregrines around, along with numerous Herring And Lesser Black-backed Gulls: Bath was renowned as one of the first locations where the inland, urban breeding habit of these ‘seagulls’ was recorded.

Given its location in a loop of the River Avon, bridges and riverscapes are another major feature:

Along the riverbank there was welcome dappled shade from many Tulip-trees, while several of the Sycamores where showing a remarkable infestation of Horse-chestnut Scale-insects: …

… and riverside flowers included Himalayan Balsam and Shaggy-soldier (both attracting insects) with another rapidly spreading non-native, Water Bent-grass.

Tumbling down from a higher level in a series of vertiginous locks, we walked along the Kennet & Avon Canal to Widcombe …

 

… one lock gate in particular being a lovely vertical garden, nicely complementing the village telephone boxes.

Last but not least the Botanic Gardens. Always a delight to visit such places, as much for the insects and other wildlife as for the plants themselves:

… including a single Globe Artichoke attracting the attention of a carder-bee, a Honeybee and a leafcutter-bee, all delving deeply and being liberally coated with pollen.

But then we were off, further west, into Wales…

Late Summer at Landguard Point

It was a perfect summer day for a short foot-ferry trip from Harwich to Landguard Point…

The Harbour was millpond-still, overseen by huge blue skies and dramatic cloudscapes:

Waves lapped gently on the shingly shores as the port activities clanked softly in the background…

Out on the Common, most  flowering was over, apart from Sea Mayweed and Sticky Groundsel now at their peak …

…  with Rest-harrow erupting from the Rabbit-grazed turf and Yellow Horned-poppies still sending out blooms that flutter in the slightest breeze.

Otherwise it was the fading delights of a floral summer:

Duke-of-Argyll’s Tea-plant, as so often simultaneously flowering and fruiting, its goji berries having survived the depredations of superfood hunters and birds alike:

Some magnificent Robin’s Pincushions, galls caused by tiny wasps, adorned the Dog-roses, while several much larger Sand Wasps were provisioning their nests in the shingle:

A couple of mating Common Blues posed well, although the star insects – Dune Villa fly and Jersey Tiger moth –  were simply too fast in the mounting heat, and evaded the camera.

All this and more, including on the Essex side of the Haven, the mean streets of Harwich, nowadays lined with Shaggy Soldiers, a street-plant that wasn’t there a decade or so ago when we lived in the area…

… and the  biodiverse, bounteous, blooming beauty of brownfields: a magic multicultural mix of species from all over the world, today thronged in Small White butterflies!

A couple of days in Cambridge…

A couple of lovely sunny days in Cambridge last week, Eleanor’s first holiday with Granny and Papa, proved a real success all round. Centrepiece of the first day was the Botanic Garden: well known to us, but seen now with new eyes – flowers from all round the world, complete with a kids’ passport-stamping discovery trail …

Given the time of year, fruits were also a feature, along with foliage sprinkled with mercurial stardust and brought to life with welcome sunlight:

Insects were everywhere of course, from leaf-cutter bees to Cinnamon Bugs, butterflies to dragonflies, the Ruddy Darter being one of Eleanor’s photographic efforts!

One poor Southern Hawker was giving especially good views, but only because it had been captured and beheaded by a Moorhen. It was then presented to a well-grown chick, which proceeded to turn up its bill at the offering!

Finally on the insects, we were saddened to see the killing fields of Thalia dealbata unleashed. A previous blog Murder at the Garden Pond: Thalia dealbata – the (not very) beautiful assassin | Chris Gibson Wildlife has catalogued the unsavoury habits of this plant, and we hope that contact with Garden managers will result in the removal of the pollinator-killing flower-spikes, as we now do at Beth Chatto’s Garden.

The following day, the Museum of Zoology kept us out of the fierce sun, and occupied for a good couple of hours. A REAL museum, with lots of fascinating actual specimens, an absence of buttons and lights, but child-friendly display cases, the right height to get eye-to-eye with specimens of every kind.

And that apart from some bits of intentional and unintentional street art was it…

… except for the delight of the funfair for our little treasure!

 

 

 

Wandering around the Wirral with a camera

We have just returned from a lovely three day train trip to and around the Wirral, a place previously unknown to us. Despite the often wet weather (this is a far cry from semi-arid Essex!), we had a wonderful time, especially our night at The Ship, Parkgate…

Parkgate

Nestled on the shores of the Dee Estuary, overlooking extensive salt marshes to the distant Welsh hills and the wind farms of Liverpool Bay, The Ship proved an ideal location, with good food and drink, and an excellent sun-deck for those few precious moments when the sun emerged!

The black-and-white colour theme of the village in places contrasted beautifully with the native red sandstone walls:

Although the tide remained stubbornly distant, there were flock of Black-tailed Godwits and Redshanks, together with a few Greenshanks and Common Sandpipers, and a couple of Spoonbills, all to the rattling and reeling of singing Sedge and Grasshopper Warblers.

Wirral Country Park

Just north of Parkgate we explored part of the linear Wirral Country Park, a former railway line, which produced a number of botanical and entomological treasures.

Ness Botanic Gardens

Sadly, our afternoon at Ness was pretty much wall-to-wall drizzle (or heavier), and therefore the experience can best be described as ‘atmospheric’!

Of course the plants were interesting…

… together with a range of insects, including the Alder Leaf Beetle, a new colonist of the country after its 20th century extinction.

New Brighton

An evening stroll along New Brighton promenade was a complete seaside experience…

… complete with views to the windfarms. across to the iconic Liverpool waterfront, and deep in the heat haze to the north, Antony Gormley’s humanoid beach sculptures ‘Another Place‘ at Crosby.

Port Sunlight

And finally to the main reason for our visit to the area, the delights of Port Sunlight. Blue-skies and sun, culture, architecture and art…

… and of course in the copious green spaces and gardens, wildlife …

— including a surprising record (for us) of the Tulip-tree Aphid, seemingly another very recent colonist of our shores, being devoured by  Harlequin Ladybirds. Always something exciting to find!

#WildEssexWalks – Wrabness and Stour Wood

A pleasant afternoon in July saw a group from WildEssex enjoy a round walk for a couple of hours, from and back to Wrabness railway station.  En route we took in that most whacky of buildings, Grayson Perry’s ‘A House For Essex’, East Grove Wood with its unrivalled position on the banks of the River Stour, arable fields with impressive wildflower margins, and Stour Wood reserve itself, an ancient woodland planted predominately with Sweet Chestnut trees, which were in full flower and filling the air with their mushroomy fragrance.

There was plenty of insect life to be spotted – a stunning Yellow-and-Black Beetle stole the show, together with Hogweed Bonking Beetles, and everyone’s favourite, the Cinnabar caterpillar (also in that pleasing colourway yellow-and-black).

We were delighted to see how many butterflies there were (after a very slow start to the season): Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers galore, together with Ringlets, Red Admirals, Peacocks, Whites and a couple of Holly Blues, and not forgetting a 6-spot Burnet moth. In the woodland itself a few Silver-washed Fritillaries and White Admirals soared overhead, but none stayed for a photo opportunity.

The very familiar 7-spot Ladybirds were putting on a very good show – both decorative and aphid-munchers par excellence – what’s not to like??

For the botanists amongst us, there were also lots of plants to note – my favourite White Bryony along hedgerows, Enchanter’s Nightshade in deep shade, Rosebay Willowherb, Wood Sage and Honeysuckle in the coppice clearings, and Bugloss around the sandy field edges.

And of course there was the interface between botany and other disciplines, in the form of galls and mildews…all of nature is fascinating!

As always we would like to extend our thanks to our group of nature-lovers for sharing these experiences with us 😊. And we look forward to our next meeting.

Over the sea to … Landguard Point!

By way of an exploration for a possible #WildEssex trip next summer, we headed over the mouth of Harwich Harbour on the regular foot-ferry to Felixstowe.

Arriving near Landguard Fort, it was a short walk out onto the Point and Common, the southernmost section of the Suffolk shingle coastline, on the receiving end of gravel eroded from cliffs and offshore Ice Age deposits right up into north-east Norfolk.

While, after a month-long  period without rain, much of the Common was brown and droughted, grazed right down by Rabbits, the true shingle flora like Sea Kale and Yellow Horned-poppy so well adapted to the environmental stresses of drought, sun, wind and ground instability, remains green and is coming into flower.

As always, different plants in different places: where the shingle is more sandy, this is picked out by Marram and Sea Spurge being the dominant species.

Moving landwards, the vegetation diversifies, with annuals such as Scarlet Pimpernel, Slender Thistle and Common Stork’s-bill (both pink and white forms) …

… and grassland perennials such Rest-harrow, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Wild Clary and White Stonecrop – while none of these is obligately coastal, the whole community is indicative of proximity to the sea.

And then there are the plants that are more familiar to us perhaps as being characteristic of sandy agricultural field margins: Bugloss, Viper’s-bugloss and Weld.

In a few patches scrub has grown up, mainly of Wild Privet, Elder and Tamarisk, festooned in White Bryony (both male and female), which provides shelter for breeding Linnets and the few invertebrates we saw on our breezy day, including Endothenia gentianeana.

So close to the docks, there are many opportunities for interesting plants not native in Britain to arrive and get a foothold. The  Rough Dog’s-tail grass is one obvious example, a plant I have seen in this country only a handful of times, mostly down by the Thames Estuary.

The port also of course provides ample opportunities to watch the world come and go. The infrastructure is impressive in its own right, even given the fact that much of that which is imported is unnecessary plastic tat from the Far East. A cathedral to commerce, as impressive in its way as a religious cathedral can be to a non-believer…

Crossing the harbour on the ferry simply adds to the opportunity, to watch the ever-changing seascapes, shipping and wildlife (here a Harbour Seal), and to see familiar landmarks from a different perspective.

And both starting and finishing from Harwich Rail Station, time to explore the historic architecture, the gardens exploding with Giant Viper’s-bugloss and the railway sidings ablaze with Red Valerian and Oxeye Daisy.

A good day out (with an all-day breakfast in the View Point Cafe and  fine pint in The Alma) – we are very likely to be back!