Local walks in the Somerset Levels this spring

The Covid-19 lockdown has led to some unexpected benefits. We’ve had to change our habits for days off, so instead of travelling to interesting places on the south coast (for example), we’ve found ourselves exploring locally. We’re loving it: this is a wonderful area to explore, and because we don’t have to include travel time, we can walk for longer. So I thought I’d blog some photos from our walks. Before you ask, we’re grateful that the Government avoided setting a limit on how long one could go for exercise!

We’ve done a couple of long treks along the Samaritans Way between Moorlinch and Sutton Mallet (which has exceptional views south over the Levels) and on down to the King’s Sedgemoor Drain (which has to be one of the least-romantically named rivers, possibly beaten to last place only by the North & South Drains). Some of the bridges we’ve encountered have varied between dodgy, dangerous and unusuable, but the one across the Drain south of Sutton Mallet is as solid a structure as any footbridge can be, and affords some nice views of a straight watercourse in a flat landscape.

King’s Sedgemoor Drain: the view from the bridge south of Sutton Mallet

On our first walk there, we ventured east towards Greylake. All seemed fine by the time we got to the footbridge across the River Sowy and the neighbouring drain – but the journey across the next 15 field boundaries to the A361 was remarkable in its awfulness: either requiring one to be ten-foot tall to cross the in-tact stiles, or to balance carefully on the remnants of them, or to have cast-iron legs to resist the nettles.

King’s Sedgemoor Drain – junction with two other drains, one of which passes for the River Sowy

On our next trip there, we headed east towards the Parchey Bridge, about a mile east of Chedzoy. This was, mostly, much more straightforward, with some lovely views of the west end of the Polden Hills near Stawell.

King’s Sedgemoor Drain looking towards the Parchey Bridge

One of the most scenic walks was along the River Cary. We had parked in Compton Dundon (after it became clear that the Government were permitting short journeys to begin exercise), and followed the line of the river from Etsome Bridge to Pitney Steart Bridge, at the southern end of Walton Drove. There’s a naturalness to this river that’s completely absent from the drains!

River Cary east of Etsome Bridge

River Cary near Compton Dundon

We were fascinated by an old bridge (named as Park Bridge) over the River. Because of its curvature, it clearly pre-dates modern farm machinery, and appears to be marked on the OS map of 1885 (here). I suspect it’s considerably older but am not sure how to find out.

Park Bridge on the River Cary

We turned away from the river at the Pitney Steart Bridge, heading north up Walton Drove, where we had a clear view of Lollard Hill, one the two hills around Compton Dundon (which we’ve nicknamed “the Dundon Dipole” – who said we’re geeks?)

Lollard Hill from Walton Drove

The River Parrett has some attractive trails along its length; on one occasion we parked about a mile north west of Burrowbridge, and followed the line of the river until it passed under the M5. We then took a short path down to the Bridgwater-Taunton canal. I was keen to photograph the canal with the motorway bridge crossing it to give some context. However, I did not think I’d be able to take one with Joshua’s favourite vehicle in the frame (a tractor): but there it was, being transported on a flat-bed truck.

The M5 crossing over the Bridgwater-Taunton canal

Joshua had done quite well for transport: we’d just had lunch by a level-crossing on the railway, and he was excited by the trains passing through.

Our lunch spot, between the River Parrett and the Bridgwater-Taunton canal

There’s a lovely walk near Muchelney, along the Parrett and Yeo. I strove to get some nice riverside photos and made valiant efforts to get just the right view; so it was ironic to discover that one of the most attractive photos was taken at the start of the walk, from the road bridge west of Muchelney, where the Parrett heads towards Langport.

River Parrett at Muchelney looking towards Langport

Path along the River Yeo east of Langport

I think the photo from the road bridge was really only bettered by one I took near the end of the day, along the Parrett towards Muchelney.

River Parret looking towards Muchelney

Our most recent walk explored the area south of Stathe. We followed the path from there to the confluence of the Tone & Parrett, and then followed the Tone south beyond Athelney, before going into the low hills south of Curload. Much of this is along the East Deane way.

Jen and Joshua by the River Parrett,with Burrow Mump behind

At Moredon we cut across the hill towards the West Sedge Moor. We could have followed the East Deane Way along the boundary between the hill and the moor, but instead took the North Drove. This turned out to be a long, straight drove, which seemed to be well used by locals. Much of the area is owned by the RSPB, and part of the soundscape was the haunting, bubbling sound of curlews on their breeding territories.

West Sedge Moor – much of which is an RSPB nature reserve.

We’ve enjoyed exploring the local area so much that, even when the lockdown has fully lifted, we may continue to do so, with fewer trips further afield. Being able to walk further within the time available, combined with its being such a lovely area, makes this a very attractive possibility!

Hummingbirds, tigers, and a bat in the bedroom

Despite a lack of time, the last couple of months have been quite eventful for wildlife watching: sometimes when I wasn’t even trying to look for wildlife, including once when I was asleep…

A couple of months ago we went on a walk along the River Yeo near Limington, east of Yeovil. The walk itself was mildly interesting but not quite as impressive as it had looked on the map. As we got back to the car I noticed some red valerian by the roadside. Nothing unusual in that, except that this time they were adorned by a couple of hummingbird hawk-moths. There were several others nearby. I’d only seen one once before (briefly, in the garden about three years ago) and had been hoping to see another – seeing several at once was an unexpected treat. My first attempts to photograph them involved chasing them round the plants, which only led to frustration, but I found that with a bit of anticipation I could wait for them to come into view – with much better results! This is one of a number of day-flying moths that are spreading north because of global warming.

Hummingbird hawk-moth on valerian, in Lidington

I normally go to Ham Wall to see the rarer species. As it happens, on a trip in mid-June my best photos were of a much more common species that I have struggled to photograph well. This wren had an all-consuming task to accomplish – hence also the hungry juvenile!

Wren with food at Ham Wall

Wren feeding chick at Ham Wall

I also took a few whitethroat photos which I was rather pleased with – but they were trumped by ones I took a couple of weeks later!

We went to Skomer at the end of June while we were staying in Fishguard. We had a roughly three hour wait between purchasing our tickets and getting on the boat, so after a late breakfast in the car park we ventured a short way along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path above Martin’s Haven. We hadn’t gone far when a whitethroat landed on a prominent perch nearby.

Whitethroat on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path at Martin’s Haven

A beakful (Skomer)

Skomer itself is a wonderful place – and an exceptional location for seeing and photographing puffins. I’d been a bit worried on my previous trip (about five years ago) that the number of puffins nesting there had dropped quite sharply – as they were only located at the east end of The Wick, a narrow inlet on the west side of the island.However, this time they were more widespread, being more widely distributed on the south side of The Wick, and also nesting further north on the island’s west coast. I think my previous trip was better photographically – but there are a few that I took that I was pleased with.

Group of puffins on Skomer

Puffin portrait (Skomer)

A couple of days later we explored the peninsula beyond St David’s, which becomes open moorland soon after leaving the car park at Whitesands Bay. There were a few wheatears flitting around, which I missed photographing well the first time; but later, when Jen was feeding Joshua, I went back and was lucky with a male wheatear, which obligingly landed on a prominent rock.

Wheatear on the St David’s Peninsula

Later in the week we explored the coast north of Newport. Usually when I photograph a bird, it flies away: but here there was a stonechat that did the opposite, coming gradually closer as I waited.

Stonechat on the coast near Newport (north of Fishguard)

Up until last Easter I hadn’t even heard of soldier beetles, and only became aware of them when one landed on Jen’s hand. Towards the end of last month I wandered round Waltons Heath at Ham Wall – and discovered that virtually every cow parsley plant was hosting many soldier beetles! These are the common red soldier beetle, apparently known colloqially as the Hogweed Bonking Beetle (which you wouldn’t expect a vicar to explain, would you?!)

Soldier beetle on cow parsley

Soldier beetle with hoverflies, on cow parsley

Earlier that morning, I had stopped at the old railway bridge crossing the channel west of Waltons Heath. The sun was in just the right position to reveal the fish in the water, and I was astonished at just how many there were. It’s not a great photo but does demonstrate their abundance. It’s therefore hardly surprising that the area is so good for herons and related species!

Why Ham Wall is so good for herons – the canal viewed from the old railway bridge

Talking of which, when we visited the Avalon Hide last Saturday, a Great White Egret lurking close to the hide caught a fish in full view of everyone there – providing several people with a great photo opportunity!

Great white egret, with catch

Jersey Tiger-moth

Another day-flying moth which is spreading north due to global warming is the Jersey Tiger Moth. There have been a couple in the Vicarage garden. I’ve not seen one settle with its wings open – much the most photogenic pose – but it’s quite impressive even with wings closed.

The bat in the bedroom – probably a serotine. I’d like to say that the powdery white stuff is snow, but that doesn’t really work for early August… Perhaps we should look at the top of the wardrobe more often?

One night last week there was an odd flapping sound in the bedroom, and Jen told me that there was a bat flying around. I turned over and went back to sleep. An hour later I woke up and said to Jen, “there really is a bat flying around!”. We tried looking for it, and only discovered it when Jen heard it move on the top of her wardrobe. I was eager to photograph but not to provoke into panicked flight around the room, so I avoided using flash. My best attempt is the image here. It was clearly a large bat (not one of the diminutive pipistrelles) but the photo isn’t really good enough to say more than that. However, over the following couple of days I noticed one or two large bats flying around the front garden and surrounding area, so I got the bat detector out while our friends Jack and Alison were here. We saw several of the larger bats (or maybe a couple of them several times!), and the sound coming from the bat detector was uniequivocally that of a serotine bat. I assume therefore that that’s what we had in the bedroom.

What to do when Jen’s 40 weeks preggers?

We’ve been given lots of advice about how to usher things along – some ideas very congenial, other ideas more fun for me than for Jen…

1. Drive along lots of bumpy roads.

Lots of people have told us about this one… Our midwife, Kerry, enthusiastically told us about a bumpy road in the Quantocks… but when we got there we found it was quite smooth compared to the roads floating on peat in the Levels! So a couple of times we’ve gone from Shapwick to Burtle, then down along the Edington road to a potholed drove, which we went along as bumpily as possible, then back into Burtle, along Green Drove, before turning round and returning to Shapwick.

A drove road between Burtle and Edington – lots of nice potholes!

2. Take lots of walks

Kerry also thinks going for long walks is really good – and we don’t need much persuasion of this one! Over the last few weeks we’ve had a few trips to the south coast on days off – and have been able to enjoy the exceptional weather.

Jen on Doghouse Hill near Golden Cap a couple of weeks ago.

Jen om Cothelstone Hill on Tuesday after an appointment with the midwife

3. Eat Fry’s Chocolate Cream

At a babycare store in Bridport, the shop owner told us about one time she was pregnant and several days overdue. Her husband bought her a Fry’s chocolate cream – and two hours later she went into labour. Ever since, she’s been convinced the two events are linked and has been recommending it since then. Does Jen need any more excuse to eat chocolate?

Well if it worked for the lady in Bridport, why not try it?

4. Eat curry!

Apparently a hot curry is a great way to bring labour forward. Clearly I agree with this wholeheartedly – but we had to keep it reasonably cool for Jen to eat it at all! We had a curry from Sainsburys one night; I cooked a curry one last night, and we went to a curry house in Taunton tonight. (I think she enjoyed the bumpy drives more though!)

Can’t go wrong with a good curry – especially if it brings labour forward!

Yup, it’s a pineapple

5. Eat pineapple

There’s actually some medical evidence for this one in that one of the chemicals in pineapple really does bring labour on… except that Jen would need to eat 8 pineapples in succession to get the desired effect! But we might have a curry laced with pineapple tonight…

6. Watch England beat Colombia and Sweden

Well it was worth a try, wasn’t it? Except that I got more excited about it than Jen did. We might have to miss the semi-final though…

Let me finish this post with a few scenics…

View in Ladram Bay

Kestrel on the way up Doghouse Hill.

The colours from the beach at Branscombe were impressive…

Northumbrian refreshment

Jen and I have had a very refreshing week’s holiday in Northumberland after Easter, doing some good walks and meeting up with friends.

We did two walks in the Cheviots, a range of hills that spans the Scottish border. Compared to the more familiar Lake District fells, the Cheviot hills are much more remote with fewer crowds; the higher levels are windswept and treeless, with rounded tops that somehow look bleaker. Our first walk was an enjoyable trek up Windy Gyl – which lived up to its name – from Upper Coquetdale. The second was to The Cheviot – at 810m one of the highest mountains outside of the Lakes. This has a large plateau at the top, so that there are no views of surrounding hills from the summit trig point.

Jen modelling a signpost on the Pennine Way, with the upper sign pointing us to Windy Gyl.

View of Windy Gyl as we descended towards Upper Coquetdale.

Upper Coquetdale

We were also able to meet up with a number of friends. On the Wednesday we visited Jaybee and his wife Jane in South Hetton; Jaybee’s mobility now limits his wildlife photography, but he’s still managed to become a specialist on hoverflies. The next evening we went to dinner with Satomi Miwa at an excellent Turkish restaurant in Longbenton, who told us about her ministry amongst international students at Jesmond Parish Church.

On Saturday evening we arrived, late and smelly after a long walk up the Cheviot, at Ann and Arthur Pratt’s house. They understood our plight immediately and gave us towels and showed us to the showers! They gave us an excellent meal, and told us about their lives as medics and also about their church in Prudhoe.

With Satomi at the Lezzet Turkish restaurant in Longbenton

I managed to survive without going on a birdwatching trip, but there were still some great photographic opportunities! We spent a day at the National Trust’s Wallington estate, which had a lovely river walk winding round one side of the site. There was a very showy dipper on the river, which performed lots of characteristic antics, like dipping at the knees and running underwater.

Dipper on the river at Wallington, with a beakful of insects and other prey.

There were lots of red grouse when we walked to The Cheviot, with one in particular showing great patience in allowing me to bend down to get a better angle on a photograph before flying off.

Red Grouse

One of the major highlights of the week was on the Sunday morning, when we dropped into Stockton Parish Church, where I’d done my placement from college in 2010-11. The church has grown dramatically in the years after I left, with the congregation roughly double the size, with many from refugee communities. We had a very good chat with Alan Farish, who was the vicar when I was there, and has since handed over the reins to his curate, Mark Miller (who had been at Cranmer in the year below me). I was also delighted to be able to catch up with those who’d been part of the ministry at the Community Church, such as Jon and Sarah Searle, Adam Walsh, Rob and Kath Bailey. Being part of this team was hugely formative for me – and, with hindsight, appears to have been for everyone else involved as well!