Mist, sun and reflections in the Lake District

Jen and I could hardly have picked a better week to be in the Lake District last week! Although we had to contend with mist and cloud on occasions, the weather was stunning for much of it the time. I’m going to let the photos tell most of the story this time.

Our first full day was the one where the clouds never fully left the scene. We did the Dale Head round, which is one of my favourites in the Lake District, but Jen never quite got the views that I’d promised!

Dramatic clouds from the top of Dale Head towards Maiden Moor (Newlands Valley just visible on the left)

Dramatic clouds from the top of Dale Head towards Maiden Moor (Newlands Valley just visible on the left)

Late on the following morning around Buttermere, we had the most spectacular scenery of the entire week – and this view of the reflections from High Crag scarcely does it justice.

Reflections on Buttermere: High Stile is the mountain

Reflections on Buttermere: High Stile is the mountain

Our walk that day started late. Further up, a light mist had settled across the landscape, and I haven’t yet worked out to compensate for this photographically – but the mountains still looked magnificent.

Jen on Stile looking towards Great Gable

Jen on Stile looking towards Great Gable

I’m sure I’ve done Red Pike before but I’d certainly forgotten how amazing the views are, despite the mist. Nevertheless the entire descent from top to bottom was dreadful – it’ll have to be another route down next time!

Getting clear views was difficult because there was a light mist all day, but Crummock Water and Grasmoor still looked stunning from Red Pike.

Getting clear views was difficult because there was a light mist all day, but Crummock Water and Grasmoor still looked stunning from Red Pike.

We were based at the Black Sail youth hostel for Thursday and Friday nights, and our best day’s walking was on the Friday. We did some peaks neither of us had done before: Pillar, Scoat Fell, Steeple and Haycock. The clouds prevented obtaining great photos – but it was a most rewarding walk.

Jen crossing Scoat Fell, with Steeple in the background on the right

Jen crossing Scoat Fell, with Steeple in the background on the right

Our final walk, on the Saturday, was on Grasmoor – just out of the main tourist area but a very rewarding climb. I particularly enjoyed this view of Dale Head and the Newlands Valley.

The evening Sun gave some nice textures in the view towards Dale Head and the Newlands Valley

The evening Sun gave some nice textures in the view towards Dale Head and the Newlands Valley

Cuthbert and the otters

There’s a story about the Celtic hermit-monk, St Cuthbert, and a pair of otters, which is very endearing – but whose truth, until recently, I doubted. It’s told by Bede, his biographer and near-contemporary.

An icon of Cuthbert praying - with otters in attendance

An icon of Cuthbert praying – with otters in attendance (from Aidan Hart Sacred Icons)

Cuthbert lived as a monk on Lindisfarne in the 7th century, and soon acquired a reputation of great holiness. While visiting another monastic community he was known to slip outside in the middle of the night and return in the morning. A fellow monk wanted to find out what he did, so one night he followed him from a distance. He discovered that Cuthbert waded into the sea up to his neck. When morning came he returned, knelt on the beach, and prayed. While he did so, “two otters bounded out of the water, stretched themselves out before him, warmed his feet with their breath, and tried to dry him with their fur. They finished, received his blessing, and slipped back to their watery home”.

It’s hardly surprising that Cuthbert had a reputation for closeness to nature! But when I frist read the story my thoughts were, “I wish this were true, but really, it’s too far-fetched; it must be pious legend.”

I thought the same about another story of Cuthbert – his association with crows – but that changed because of evidence from an unexpected source.

Cuthbert had sought greater solitude in later life and ended up on Inner Farne, a small, bleak island in the North Sea off the Northumbrian coast. Some ravens that shared the island decided that straw on the visitors’ house would make great nesting material. Cuthbert rebuked them – but they ignored him. So Cuthbert resorted to more drastic words: “In the name of Jesus Christ, depart forthwith!”. At this, the ravens departed.

Bede records what happened next: “Three days later, one of a pair of them returned, and finding Cuthbert digging, stood before him, with feathers outspread and head bowed low to its feet in a sign of grief. Using whatever signs it could to express contrition it very humbly asked pardon. When Cuthbert realised what it meant, he gave permission for them all to return. Back they came with a fitting gift – a lump of pig’s lard. Cuthbert would often show this to his visitors, inviting them to grease their shoes with it”.

Again a lovely story – but again one that my sceptical mind doubted severely.

Until I read a couple of articles on the BBC News website about crows bringing gifts. The one that really struck me was about a crow called Sheryl (geddit?!): “Sheryl brings me gifts. My first was presented to me with her wings splayed open and head bowed. I was very ceremoniously handed a yellow foam dart from a toy gun! She refused to take the dart back as she does when we play games. I felt truly honoured.”

What really struck me about the story is not just the fact that it brought the gift, but the gesture while doing so which evoked Bede’s description of Cuthbert’s raven. I suddenly realised that story had a ring of truth to it: he was accurately describing the bird’s behaviour. Whether the ravens were “repentant” in the way that Bede described is a little less clear- but perhaps the event itself is described accurately.

I wonder whether the same might be said of Cuthbert and the otters? Perhaps they did indeed play around his feet as described – but perhaps with less intention to warm him with their breath and dry him with their fur as the monk described? I’m realising that I may have underestimated the veracity of Bede’s ‘Life of Cuthbert’, which the story of the ravens unexpectedly reveals.

An otter sighting

I may have otters on the brain at the moment. I went for a birding trip last week to the new hide at Catcott Lows which overlooks a small, reed-lined lake. There was hardly a bird in sight, apart from a little egret on the far side and three little grebes in the middle. Then I became aware that there was a form in the water to my left – “What have we here?” I thought, as I saw the unmistakable shape of an otter swimming through. It cruised along, diving gracefully, emerging to swim further on and dive again. I watched it doing this for about five minutes before it disappeared. It was a stunning sighting!

The stories about Cuthbert are from “The Age of Bede”, Penguin (2004), p54 and p71

Gill and Ian’s wedding

A couple of weeks ago, Rich and I had the privilege of attending the wedding of my good friend Gillian Overend to Ian Jones. I met Gill as a fellow leader on Basecamp in 2009, which is a Christian summer camp whose aim is to encourage young christians in godliness and leadership skills. It takes place every year in a National Trust centre at High Wray in the Lake District just to the west of Lake Windermere, and there are around ten leaders and 16 young people aged 16-20. On alternate days we work for the National Trust on things like building footpaths through bogs, or chopping down and burning rhododendron trees . On the intermediate days we do activities like walking and kayaking. There are small Bible study groups and a big meeting every evening with a Bible talk. I went back to Basecamp in 2011 and 2013, in which years Gill acted as an excellent overall leader of the camp!

Gill looking useful

Gill looking useful at Basecamp in 2011 – path building at the Kirkstone Pass. Photo by unknown Basecamp member

Ian and Gill

Walking out of the church! Photo by Rich

Ian and Gill got married in the church where Gill’s father is vicar, although another vicar took the service so that Gill’s dad could focus on his father-of-the-bride job. The church is in Billinge, which is in historic Lancashire, but is now part of modern day Merseyside. Although we set off really early (for us), there had been a major accident on the M6 causing long delays, and we ended up trailing in behind the bride!

The service itself was really joyful, and Rich and I appreciated the sense of God’s presence within it. We were impressed by the address on Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, which was given by the comedian Ian Macdonald, as it was thoughtful and highlighted some of the priorities that are relevant to marriages in the 21st century.

Rich and Jen

Rich and Jen at the reception. Photo by John Southcombe

The day also provided a chance to catch up with some other old friends: Nicola Morris, much revered cook at Basecamp, John and Dawn Southcombe and Hilary Gardner who were all a lot of fun to be around and have inspirational stories of their own faith journeys.

Gill’s attention to detail meant that at the reception we were put on the same table as a family who live in Kenilworth, which is where I grew up. Tim is the churchwarden of St John’s Church in Kenilworth, and it was exciting to hear about the major building project they are currently undertaking. Tim and Fiona’s twin daughters Rhian and Sian were also there celebrating – one day after their own 21st birthdays! I also particularly enjoyed the beautiful piano music at the service and reception, which was played by two of Ian’s friends.

Our table at the reception

Our table at the reception: Ian, Rhian, Sian, Fiona, Hilary, Dawn, John, Nicola, Jen. Photo by Rich

We left before the dancing, much to Rich’s relief, and headed back down to Somerset. Lots of people had reassured us that, at that hour of the evening, the journey back would be much easier than our long journey up. Four-and-a-half hours later and several sets of roadworks later we weren’t so convinced about that, but as we finally got to bed at 1.30am, we agreed that it had been a most excellent day and we were so pleased to have been invited.

The majestic kingfisher

One of the lesser-known hides here – Canada Lake – is brilliant for kingfishers. Having decided to visit more of the reserves in the area, I’d gone to see what was there, and after a while noticed a couple of them zipping around the near side of the lake. A branch next to the hide had been deliberately placed as a perch for them, but they seemed to be using one closer to the water’s edge, and on the wrong side of the reeds from where I was sat; but then, just before I was about to leave, one landed on the branch. Watching and photographing it made me realise, yet again, what magnificent birds they are.

Kingfisher at the Canada Lake hide

Kingfisher from the Canada Lake hide

Kingfisher at the Canada Lake hide: I was lucky that the lighting was just right for the photos - as long as she looked in the right direction!

Kingfisher from the Canada Lake hide: I was lucky that the lighting was just right for the photos – as long as she looked in the right direction!

Kingfisher at the Canada Lake hide: magificent he may be, but you wouldn't want to be on the wrong end of that bill...

Kingfisher from the Canada Lake hide: magificent she may be, but you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of that bill…

And then she was off...

And then she was off…

Seeing a little bittern – really well!

Three years ago, little knowing I would end up living here, I travelled from Worcestershire to Ham Wall in order to see a little bittern. I stayed at a local campsite in order to be on site in the early morning. Earlier this summer, rumours began to circulate that a little bittern was being heard and seen again – so, living less than ten minutes from Ham Wall, I was eager for another sighting of this notoriously elusive bird.

Thus it was that, one evening in early July, I headed along the main track towards the eastern end of the reserve, keeping my ears open. Eventually I heard the muffled barking: huf… huf… huf…. With monotonous regularity, there were ten barks every 23 seconds. I waited for well over half an hour, every so often straining over the reeds to see whether I could at least glimpse it – but despite its audibility, it remained out of sight.

Then without warning it suddenly flew up from just below where I was stood, across in front of me – it can’t have been more than ten feet away at one point – before cruising into the middle of the reedbed on the opposite side of the path. I was able to take in the black wings with large white elliptical patches and the bright orangey-yellow bill as it passed by. I’d have been thoroughly content with that – but a few minutes later it returned, albeit a bit further away. Then, shortly after, it flew along the reedbed. Three sightings in about ten minutes – each one far better than the glimpses three years ago.

Little bittern - photo by local wildlife photographer James Packer.

Little bittern – photo by local wildlife photographer James Packer.

A few days later I was chatting with a neighbour who is also a birding enthusiast. I was bemoaning the fact that I’d missed the collared pratincole that had been seen at Ham Wall while Jen and I were in the Scillies. I then mentioned this little bittern sighting, which he thought was more notable: “Some people would kill you for that!” he said.

Wandering among the stones in Cornwall

After our week in the Scillies, Jen and I had a week with my mother in Cornwall near St Cleer. The week mostly revolved around stones and gardens!

Mum and Jen at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

Mum and Jen at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

We visited both the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project. Both are very impressive, though in some ways the Lost Gardens were a bit more relaxing to go around, possible because there were fewer eco-political messages.

Our location on the edge of Bodmin Moor meant that we were very close to a number of impressive ancient monuments. One of these is the Hurlers, a collection of three Bronze Age stone circles (around 1500BC) which is, apparently, a unique arrangement. Within two miles was an even older monument, the neolithic Trevethy Quoit, dating from about 3000BC, which may have been as much a shrine as a tomb. These are fascinating and tantalising insights into the communities that lived in the area five millennia ago.

Two of stone circles at the Hurlers.

Two of stone circles at the Hurlers.

Trevethy Quoit, dating from about 3000BC

Trevethy Quoit, dating from about 3000BC

Jen and Rich at the Cheesewring, Bodmin Moor

Jen and Rich at the Cheesewring, Bodmin Moor

Yet more ancient – because it’s entirely natural – is the Cheesewring, a granite tor a mile or so beyond the Hurlers. Jen and I went there on what was meant to be a nice long walk. Instead, we ended up trying to cross a bog (Witheybrook Marsh), and in trying to avoid getting soaked we ended up getting deeper and deeper into it, until we retreated a short distance from where we entered. Jen said, “In a few days’ time you’ll find this funny”.

After we’d extricated ourselves we went up to Craddock Moor and looked for an un-named stone circle that was up there. We succeeded in finding it – and what was interesting was to see what a circle looks like that hasn’t been excavated (although some maintenance does appear to have been carried out).

Stone circle on Craddock Moor

Stone circle on Craddock Moor

We took Mum to Golitha Falls, a lovely wooded stream not far from where we were staying. When we came to a steep section, Mum decided to wait while we descended – but, ever alert, she was soon pointing out grey wagtails flying along the stream. The photo below is some distance from being my best, but it does capture a moment quite nicely!

Grey wagtail feeding a juvenile at Golitha Falls

Grey wagtail feeding a juvenile at Golitha Falls

Jen and I had more walking success going along a short section of the coast path from Looe on our final day. Although the weather was cloudy at the start it cleared up during the afternoon and provided us with some excellent views – and a very showy, if rather flighty, juvenile stonechat.

The coast path west of Looe

The coast path west of Looe

Two snaps and it was off - but this juvenile stonechat was very showy while it was there!

Two snaps and it was off – but this juvenile stonechat was very showy while it was there!

Searching for the desert in the Scillies

There's a good reason why humans are not allowed on Annet... two of the present residents swimming offshore

There’s a good reason why humans are not allowed on Annet… two of the present residents swimming offshore

The Scilly Isles has a large number of deserted islands and rocky outcrops, each of which have their own history… Nornour, in the Eastern isles, was only recently discovered to have housed an important Roman shrine on the way from Gaul to Ireland; Samson was populated until the middle of the nineteenth century; and islands such as Annet now house important seabird colonies.But there were a number of others, which lay close to St Martin’s, that particularly fascinated Jen and myself.

One of these, White Island, lay tantalisingly opposite our lunch spot on our final full day. Seals bobbed around in the sheltered channel, entertainingly curious. I was sure that the map showed that a bar across to the island would appear at low tide but while we were there the sea remained a barrier.

White Island from St. Martin's

White Island from St. Martin’s

We left after lunch, but the lure of exploring a deserted island proved too strong and I persuaded Jen that we should try to cross. By this time another young couple (sorry, a couple who were themselves young) arrived, peered at the sea, and then trod across carefully, trying not to slip from the rocks into any unseen gullies.

So we followed, removing boots and socks, and gingerly waded in… not, in my case, very elegantly… but having learned from the other two we picked our way across without getting too deep. Ten minutes later we looked back and saw that the shingle bar was almost clear of the water… had we waited we’d have crossed with little drama.

White Island at low tide

White Island at low tide: no longer an island

Yet there was still the excitement of being on an uninhabited island, knowing that if we stayed on more than about three hours, we’d be stranded until the next low tide. We were experiencing the allure of the desert… more than a millenium ago, this drew Christian hermits to these islands – and specifically to two that lay a short distance further west.

St Helen's - the home of St Elidius around the 7th century, as seen from White Island

The island at top left is St Helen’s, the home of St Elidius around the 7th century – as seen from White Island

Fifteen hundred years agothese two (St Helen’s and Teän) would have been tidal islands – much as White Island is now. The name St Helen’s is a corruption of St Elidius, the name of a 7th or 8th century hermit about whom little is known, except that he was reputed to be the son of a British king and a bishop. His cell is still visible on the island, as are the mediaeval buildings connected with the monastery on Tresco. In 1461 Pope Pius II granted an indulgence to “the faithful who go in great numbers to the Chapel of St Elidius” [ref] which, whatever the pre-Reformation tone, indicates the great significance of the site locally.

Neighbouring St Helen’s is Teän, a name more obviously derived from ‘Theona’, a female hermit from the same era, about whom even less is known than Elidius. Her influence also seems to have inspired a monastic community that survived for centuries. In the 1950s, an archaeological investigation discovered sixteen Christian graves. One belonged to an elderly lady, who may (because of the location of her grave under the altar of the mediaeval chapel on the island) have been Theona herself.

Teän and St. Helen's - homes to the hermits St Theona and St Elidius - with Round Island Lighthouse in the distance

Teän and St. Helen’s – homes to the hermits St Theona and St Elidius – with Round Island Lighthouse in the distance; viewed from St Martin’s

Like St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne (and later, even more remotely, on Inner Farne), these Celtic saints were heading for the British equivalent of the desert. They were following in the footsteps of Antony the Great towards the end of the fourth century, and the thousands who followed him, in subsequent centuries, into the Egyptian desert. Their purpose was to become holy by battling demons, and to intercede for others in spiritual warfare.

This view of what it is to live a holy life seems alien to us in the 21st century, used as we are to comfortable western lifestyles. But perhaps the island mystics had a better insight into Biblical spirituality than we do today: after all, John the Baptist spent his life in the desert eating locusts and wild honey (Matt 3), and Jesus went into the desert for 40 days and nights specifically to be tested by the devil (Matt 4).

I’m fascinated by St Elidius and St Theona – about whom so little is known except what has been found archaeologically, but who represent a deep strand of Celtic spirituality about which we ourselves have very little understanding.