Scenic Devon – and Oxbridge!

The last few days have provided plenty of photographic opportunities – so I’m letting the pictures do most of the talking this time.

While Jen was at a conference in Seattle last week, I went on retreat to Lee Abbey in north Devon. As the weather was so good, I went on a couple of walks as well – the scenery around there is amazing!

North Devon coast near Lynmouth

North Devon coast near Lynmouth

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North Devon coast near Lynmouth

I wasn’t doing much bird-watching, but on one of the afternoons there was a very obliging wheatear near Lee Abbey which required some serious attention…

Wheatear near Lee Abbey

Wheatear near Lee Abbey

At the weekend, Jen and I headed off to Cambridge, to see Uta Hill and her family. While we were there Jen showed me some of Trinity College, where she studied.

It looked like such a calm, idyllic day... sunshine, students and tourists punting on the river Cam, Jen in front of Trinity College...

It looked like such a calm, idyllic day… sunshine, students and tourists punting on the river Cam, Jen in front of Trinity College…

...and then two boats collided, and the idyll was nearly shattered.

…and then two punts collided right by us, nearly bringing the idyll to a soggy end.

On our way back to Somerset, we went to visit my aunt, Rosalie, in Kennington, on the edge of Oxford. While there we went for a short walk down to the river Thames at Sandford Lock – the evening light was great so I couldn’t resist taking a few more photos!

Jen at Sandford Lock on the river Thames

Jen at Sandford Lock on the river Thames

Of violins, quesadillas and phalaropes

On Saturday, Jen was part of the All Souls orchestra in their Christmas Praise event – and for me it was a much more relaxed occasion than the one last year! Back then, we were meeting for the second time, and Jen was keen for me to have lunch with some of her friends (Katie, AnnaMarie and Sharon)… an event I have since affectionately called ‘meeting the committee’!

Jen among the first violins in the All Sould Orchestra.

Jen among the first violins in the All Souls Orchestra.

The concert is a blend of traditional carols and other pieces of Christmas music from elsewhere – such as the Angel’s carol by John Rutter, Walking in a winter wonderland, and a selection from West side story. This year the orchestra was joined by West End Has Faith, a group of Christians who work professionally as actors and singers in London’s west end and further afield. While I enjoyed last year’s concert, this one seemed even better – the creative blend of those involved worked particularly well.

The All Souls Christmas Priase event in full swing

The All Souls Christmas Priase event in full swing

Carlos, Lilia and Jen

Carlos, Lilia and Jen

The previous evening, Jen and I were taken to a Mexican restaurant by Carlos and Lilia. Carlos is a lecturer from Colima on the west coast of Mexico, who is having a sabbatical year at Imperial College. He was keen for us to experience ‘real’ Mexican food, as opposed to the Tex-Mex that is popularised by a some well known restaurant chains, so we went to Lupita near Charing Cross station. It was a most enjoyable meal, particularly because we were guided by them as to what were the best dishes to try. I was keen to try cactus, which appeared as an ingredient in a couple of the dishes – and was very pleasantly surprised by its texture and flavour!

Driving to London on the Friday, I could not pass up the opportunity to visit Farmoor Reservoir, particularly as there were a couple of grey phalaropes – a species that I’d not seen before. The weather was grim but seeing them was easy because they remained at the edge of the smaller northern lake. They had arrived about three weeks previously but  disappeared the next day, so I felt particularly fortunate.

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The two juvenile grey phalaropes at Farmoor Reservoir were easy to find, but difficult to photograph as they moved so fast and the water was choppy.

Getting engaged to Jennifer

Last Saturday, I got engaged to the awesomely wonderful Jennifer Siggers! Here are a few photos that mark the occasion.

Getting engaged at Hampton Court Palace

Getting engaged at Hampton Court Palace

Jen had been keen to show me Hampton Court Palace. I thought that the venue had some potential for asking her, so I checked the website and soon saw that the Privy Garden had plenty of cosy nooks. When we arrived there, I was horrified to find that the trees there were no more than two foot high, and the whole garden was consequently very exposed… Shedding any pretensions to being cool, calm and collected, we then went in search of a more suitable location, and found an arbour that was just right.

Marking the occasion at Hampton Court Palace

Marking the occasion at Hampton Court Palace

Jen

Jen

Shortly after we first connected, it was obvious that our relationship could really develop. Jen is a lecturer in bioengineering in London, having originally studied maths – so we do occasionally have geeky conversations about science!  She’s also a regular at All Souls Langham Place (where John Stott was rector for many years) – so we’ve also been known to discuss theology…

Aunty Jen with George, only a couple of days old... photo by Andrew Siggers

Aunty Jen with George, only a couple of days old… photo by Andrew Siggers

I’ve greatly enjoyed being welcomed in by Jen’s family – which has included the privilege of meeting her nephew when he was only a few hours old! He was born on New Year’s Eve, and as I was driving Jen back home the following day, we ended up visiting Andrew (her brother) and Rachael less than a day after all the drama.

Jen and I have a shared love of wild places, which is fortunate as on an early date I asked her to crawl through a hedge. (This was near the Ullenwood long barrow – I hadn’t worked out where the field exits were!). Later I took her up into a howling gale in the Peak District. We agreed the walk would have been lovely on a hot summer’s day.

Ring-necked parakeet in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace.

Ring-necked parakeet in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace.

I have tried very hard not to indoctrinate Jen into the world of birdwatching, but in a bizarre but true twist I had a life tick within minutes of our getting engaged, at the very same spot! Ring-necked parakeets are unknown in Worcestershire, but very common in this part of Surrey. Indeed, later in the evening there were several small flocks of them flying around fast and squawking noisily.

The first two photos were taken by a couple of folk who happened to wander past at the right moment – and they were both really excited to be involved in marking the occasion!

Around the beginning of November we were both really wondering whether we would ever meet ‘the right person’: I could scarcely have believed that I was about to meet such a stunningly amazing lady as Jen, and it is even more incredible for us now to be able to begin to plan life together.

Remembering Gheluvelt

In October 1914, a few miles east of Ypres, about 350 men from the Worcestershire regiment changed the course of World War One. It’s an extraordinary story of courage and bravery under extreme pressure.

I heard about it for the first time last week during a service in Alfrick: a part of the intercessions was given over to remembering the centenary of the battle for Gheluvelt, which had happened a couple of days previously.

The memorial at Gheluvelt Park in Worcester

The memorial at Gheluvelt Park in Worcester

As I understand it, there are very few occasions in military history where the actions of one small unit can make a major difference to the direction of an entire war – but this was one of those occasions.

Towards the end of October 1914, the British army was in deep trouble – they were massively outnumbered by a rampant German army. On the 31st, the fall of the strategic locality of Gheluvelt to the Germans meant there was little to stop the Germans driving the British army back to the French ports, probably out of the country as well, and achieving a quick win.

At this point desperate measures were needed and the 2nd battalion of the Worcestershire regiment was the only one left in reserve. At 2pm, three divisions were sent into action, crossing open ground that was littered with dead and wounded British soldiers, and under constant bombardment from the Germans.

This counter-attack took the Germans completely by surprise, and they retreated fast. What the Worcestershire regiment did not know was that the Gheluvelt chateau was still being held by the South Wales borderers: but this meant that they were able to combine with them and successfully retake Gheluvelt.

The battle at Gheluvelt Chateau, by J.P.Beadle: the Worcestershire battalion meet the South Wales borderers.

The battle at Gheluvelt Chateau, by J.P.Beadle: the Worcestershire battalion meet the South Wales borderers. (Painting from here)

It is curious that the Germans did not re-group and re-take Gheluvelt – they may have vastly over-estimated the remaining strength of the British army. The upshot of it is that they lost the opportunity to break through the British lines and achieve a quick and complete victory in the war. Instead, the British were able to make a short, tactical retreat to a stronger position, and consolidate their lines – which would be there for the next four years.

Poppy crosses to some of those who had fallen at Gheluvelt

Poppy crosses to some of those who had fallen at Gheluvelt

Shortly after arriving in Worcestershire I had noticed a park in the north of Worcester which had the odd name of Gheluvelt. I now understood why! I visited it yesterday to pay my respects. As the centenary of the battle was a few days ago, there were poppy crosses to some of those who had fallen. One was to a ‘Great Uncle Alfred Farmer’; another was for 8513 Albert Perks, and read ‘A very proud grandson. A Grandad I never met’. He had been a clay miner hewer from the Stourbridge before the war, and fell at Gheluvelt. His great-grandson Matthew Perks has added a comment below, which I highly recommend reading.

The story of Gheluvelt is extraordinary and inspirational: yet it came at a heavy cost to those involved. There were 370 men who took part – of whom just over half (187) were killed. The park and its memorial is a fitting tribute to those who fell both in that battle and at other times during the war.

The full story is told here.