Some Cornish refreshment in Polruan

Jen and I have just come back from a much-needed few days of rest and refreshment in Cornwall. We were able to stay in Polruan thanks to our friends Rico and Lucy, who have a house there.

Not too bad a view from the bedroom window!!

Polruan is a very picturesque large village at the mouth of the river Fowey, directly opposite the town of Fowey, to which it is connected by regular ferry trips throughout the day.

Fowey from Polruan Harbour

We were extremely fortunate with the weather – hardly any rain, and even a cloudless sky on the Friday. We took advantage of this by going on several coastal walks. Two of these were east of Polruan: one to Lantic Bay and the other from there for another couple of miles. The third was from Fowey round to the headland named ‘The Gribbin’, and which gave some stunning views back towards the Fowey river mouth. We also did the ‘Hall Walk’, which is a 4-mile loop around Polruan, Fowey, and the lower parts of the river, and also involves two ferry crossings! Most of these walks we were able to do straight from the front door.

Lantic Bay, a couple of miles east of Polruan

Polruan harbour, viewed from the path going west towards the Gribbin.

On Sunday we went to the church in Fowey, and we were impressed by the warm welcome and the commitment to the faithful teaching of scripture. We met and chatted with a lady called Anne, who then invited us to join her and her husband Dick at the local sailing club for lunch. This was an unexpected and very enjoyable occasion!

Boatyard at Polruan

From the house, we could see a boatyard which was in active operation throughout the working day. One of the people we met at the sailing club happens to be the owner of the boatyard. The orange boat above (and you can tell that I’m really into precise sailing lingo!) is being built from scratch and is nearly complete, while the blue boat, which is from St. Martin’s in the Scillies, is one that they built twenty years ago, and is now being refurbished. Tourism may be the main part of the economy, but there is clearly more to the area than just that.

 

A red start to a few days around Mousehole

Andrew – Jen’s bro – booked us all in for a few days in Mousehole over the New Year weekend. I was much looking forward to this anyway – but when an Eastern Black Redstart turned up there about ten days’ previously, I started to get a little twitchy…

I don’t normally take that much interest in sub-species but this one is a bit different… it’s much prettier (and redder) than the normal European black redstart, which is present in small numbers in the UK throughout the year; but, more notably, as it breeds in central Asia and winters in the Middle East, it shouldn’t normally be here – so why a small handful have turned up in the UK this winter is anyone’s guess. [A good guide to the black redstart subspecies is here: ref.]

Thus the first morning we were in Mousehole I headed down to the beach where it was residing (having briefly seen it the previous night), and spent a couple of hours trying to get some good photos.

Eastern black redstart, on the rocks at Mousehole.

Eastern black redstart, on the rocks at Mousehole.

Eastern black redstart in Mousehole, peering up to the top of the wall of the garden it also frequented.

Eastern black redstart in Mousehole, peering up to the top of the wall of the garden it also frequented.

As we did during the summer, Jen and I also went in search of some of the ancient archaeoloigcal remains in the area. One of these is the Tregiffian Burial chamber from around the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age. This type is unique to the area, with around a hundred on the Scilly Isles (eg here) and only about a dozen in west Cornwall. It’s bizarrely close to the B3315!

Tregiffian Entrance Grave - similar to ones found in the Scillies

Tregiffian Entrance Grave – similar to ones found in the Scillies

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Rachel’s amazing Thomas the Tank Engine cake for George. Photo by Andrew.

Jen and I had a windswept coastal walk near Porthgwarra on the Saturday morning. We started near the Minack open air theatre, and passed St Levan’s holy well: this is one of the more impressively natural of the wells that I’ve seen, and lies close to the ruined foundations of an early Comish church. Later that day, we had another windy trip to Land’s End with Andrew & Rachel, Sophie & George in the afternoon. Not exactly photogenic weather conditions – but an attack of the flu later on put paid to other chances!

Despite this, it was great to be able to spend a few days with Jen’s family. We celebrated George’s second birthday on the Saturday, so Rachel cooked an amazing Thomas the Tank Engine cake for him!

Jen near Porthgwarra

Jen near Porthgwarra

Jen with Rachel, Sophie, Andrew and George, blown around by the wind at Land's End

Jen with Rachel, Sophie, Andrew and George, blown around by the wind at Land’s End

We did however manage a little bird-watching on the morning of our return…. I’d like to say that the photo of this whimbrel took lots of careful thought with the lighting, shadows and reflections on the beach – but it was just luck…

Whimbrel on the beach at Penzance

Whimbrel on the beach at Penzance

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.

Exploring the Scillies with Jen

Jen and I have just come back from a couple of weeks in the Scillies and Cornwall. Having been to the Scillies before, I was delighted to be able to introduce Jen to these beautiful islands; although having gone as a birdwatcher previously, many of the sights were new to me as well.

Bants Carn tomb, a Bornze Age entrance grave on St Mary's

Bants Carn tomb, a Bornze Age entrance grave on St Mary’s

For example, there’s a lot of archaeological interest on these islands, and among the most notable are the remains in the north-west of St Mary’s. The Bants Carn tomb (above) is a Bronze Age entrance grave – a style which is prominent in these islands but unusual elsewhere. A short distance below is the Halangy Down village, which dates to about the first and second centuries AD. This is quite extensive: the layout of the village is still prominent, with the remains of 11 stone houses being evident.

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Halangy Down village, dating from about the first two centuries AD. This photo shows part of the Courtyard House.

We stayed in Hugh Town on St Mary’s because of its central location and greater amenities. From there we travelled around the islands during the week: we landed on all of the main ones, but also toured around a few of the outer ones. Whenever we landed we headed out to the wilder areas… about which, more later.

On Shipman Head Down - the northern tip of Bryher - looking towards Men-a-vaur and Round Island lighthouse.

On Shipman Head Down – the northern tip of Bryher – looking towards Men-a-vaur and Round Island lighthouse.

From Bryher to Tresco: with the grimly-named Hangman Island in the middle. The guy waiting by the boat later ferried a load of shellfish across to Tresco.

From Bryher to Tresco, with the grimly-named Hangman Island in the middle. The guy waiting by the boat later ferried several box-loads of shellfish across to Tresco.

Puffins near Annet

Puffins near Annet

We did do some birdwatching… including a rather grim pelagic trip. From the website I’d been led to expect something which was dedicated to birdwatching: instead it was a fishing trip with a few birdwatchers on board. Enough said! In fairness though I did see a number of European storm-petrels which I’d been keen to see – and which only come to land to breed, and only then at night.

We had better success with a more conventional day-time trip to the uninhabited island of Annet, which is closed all year to help conserve the wildlife. We were lucky to see a good number of puffins, which were coming to the end of their breeding season, so are about to leave for the winter. Then as we left Annet and began a return to St Agnes we were attended briefly by a couple of porpoises!

We were very fortunate with the weather, which had been poor in previous weeks but was stable throughout much of our time there, improving towards the end. The best day was our final one, so at the last minute we decided on a tour of the Eastern Isles – which are currently uninhabited, except by seals and sea-birds. I took the photo below as we arrived in the harbour at St Martin’s, before returning to St Mary’s and the boat back to Penzance.

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The view as we arrived in the harbour at St Martin’s, having done a trip round the Eastern Isles (visible on the horizon)

Dolphins and shipwrecks

Pair of dolphins viewed from the Scillonian

Pair of dolphins viewed from the Scillonian

Dolphin viewed from the Scillonian

Dolphin viewed from the Scillonian

One of the delights of the ferry trip to the Scillies is the chance to see dolphins. I’ve been lucky on both outbound journeys, seeing a large number of them – and even managed to snap a few this time. I used to think that to see cetaceans you had to go to more tropical areas, but the reality is that you can see many species in British coastal waters, if you go to the right places.

Life on the Scillies is critically dependant upon the sea in many ways. They were originally joined to Cornwall, being separated by the rise in sea levels since the Ice Ages – but even in Roman times most of the current archilpelago was part of a single large island (known as En Noer). The main port was in what is now St Martin’s. Today, the island of Gugh is cut off from St Agnes at high tide, while Bryher and Tresco are separated completely, except for a few days when the low spring tides enable people to walk from one to the other. The rising sea levels caused by global warming are not a new phenomenon, but the acceleration of an old one.

Every island has its own unique character: my favourite one is St Agnes. It’s wilder than the larger St Marys (which is like a small rural town), and is Britain’s most south-westerly inhabited island. It is also closest to the most treacherous stretch of water in the world. There have been more shipwrecks off the western rocks (a few miles west of the St Agnes) than anywhere else in the world. The other attraction of the island, like the others, is that it is a genuine working community. By contrast, Lundy at the mouth of the Bristol Channel has a slightly artificial feel, being entirely managed by a heritage group.

Much as I would have liked to have seen more rare birds, it is no hardship to have time to explore the Scillies!

The west coast of St Agnes - a rugged environment!

The west coast of St Agnes – a rugged environment!

Rocks off the coast of St Agnes

Rocks off the coast of St Agnes

Old Town bay, St Mary's

Old Town bay, St Mary’s

Birding in the Scillies

Black redstart on St Mary's at Borough Farm

Black redstart on St Mary’s at Borough Farm

I’ve just come back from an enjoyable week in the Scillies. Birding is a highly social activity – especially where you have a high concentration of birdwatchers, as happens during the autumn migration in the Scillies. Here’s how it works…

It starts on the ferry from Penzance. Birdwatchers tend to congregate on the upper deck, because there are often interesting species to be seen that are rarely if ever seen inland (like shearwaters and skuas), and a good chance of seeing dolphins. There was a relaxed and buoyant mood, as people chatted about what they were seeing, and hoping to see once they arrived.

I booked into the Bylet, a guesthouse about five minutes from the centre of Hugh Town, generously managed by Lisa. At breakfast (which became the main meal of the day) I discovered that all five others who were there were also birders – so it wasn’t hard to guess the topic of conversation!

Whimbrel at Old Town bay

Whimbrel at Old Town bay

Compared to many of the other birders on the island, though, I am almost a novice. This becomes very apparent when the conversation turns to life lists – the number of species one has seen in the UK, or wherever. Take for example a conversation with Len, an ex bank manager staying at the Bylet.

Snow bunting on the way to the lighthouse at Peninis Head on St Mary's.

Snow bunting on the way to the lighthouse at Peninis Head on St Mary’s.

Len: “I’ve got a life list of about 480, but I don’t chase after birds much these days, not like I used to.”

Me: “My life list is about 230 or so.”

Len: “Excuse me?”

Me: “My life list is about 230 or so.”

Len: “Goodness me! I’ve seen 268 already this year – and I’m down on previous years!”

Me: “How do you manage that living in Devon?”

Len: “Well in January I spend a week on the Hayle Estuary, then in February I have a few days in the Forest of Dean. In March…”

Hmm, and you don’t chase birds these days?!

The main social event for birders on St Mary’s happens around the ‘log’, which takes place daily in the bar of the Scillonian Club at 9pm. It’s a regular ritual, and anyone looking for liturgy outside a church would be amply rewarded here! The guy co-ordinating it goes through the systematic list of British birds, to log all those seen during the day. For example: “Anyone seen any common redstarts today?” No response. “No. Black redstarts – one still at Town beach – any others?”

“One still by the Old Town Cafe.” “One still at Borough Farm.” “There was one on St Agnes today.”

“Stonechats – lots of them today as usual. Whinchats: anyone seen any of them?” And so on.

Lapland bunting on St Mary's at Peninis Head

Lapland bunting on St Mary’s at Peninis Head

I was delighted to see a couple of Lapland Buntings. Three years ago I had gone to see a small flock reported in east Yorkshire; in my impatience all I managed to do was to spook the entire flock so they flew off, before I was able to positively identify them; they didn’t return for some hours, long after I’d departed. I was therefore abnormally relieved and delighted to see the two on St. Mary’s! There was also a very obliging snow bunting, which foraged along the footpath leading to the lighthouse on Peninis Head. It was completely unworried by how close people got to it.

The song thrush outside the Old Town churchyard, overlooking the bay.

The song thrush outside the Old Town churchyard, overlooking the bay.

However, despite all my efforts, my best photographs were of a common bird, and happened quite by chance. I was sat on a bench outside the Old Town churchyard, overlooking the bay, and chatting with a couple of other birders, when I noticed a song thrush, perched only inches away on the arm rest of the next bench. So – while trying to maintain the conversation! – I manoeuvred the camera forward and started snapping.

It happened that this week was unusually poor for a migration season. Although chance conversations tended to be optimistic at the start of the week, there was a feeling of despondency among many birders by the end. The main problem was that the prevailing winds were unsuitable for anything particularly interesting to be blown in. Nevertheless, for me it was a delight just being on the Scillies and to be able to wander around these beautiful and wild islands.

The song thrush outside the Old Town churchyard, overlooking the bay.

The song thrush outside the Old Town churchyard, overlooking the bay.