A multinational weekend – and a swing-seat

It was a privilege for us to be able to host some of Jen’s students and colleagues last weekend. We had Maryam (one of Jen’s PhD students) and her husband Mansur, both from Nigeria; Karla from Mexico and her boyfriend Nick (from Yorkshire!); Carmen, lecturer from Spain with her husband Enrique and teenage children Carmen and Tomas, and Mariia from Ukraine (a PhD student in Italy). We also had our good friends Debra and Geraint, who have just completed a ten-year stint as pastors of a church on Dine’s Green in Worcester, and are now looking for fresh fields in south Wales.

The Somerset Levels are a bit of a contrast to London, so instead of museums and art galleries we offered the wildlife of Shapwick Heath (with its replica of the neolithic Sweet Track) and Ham Wall. On Sunday, Jen was leading the café church in Shapwick, where Debra & Geraint gave the main talk. We had the reading in four languages: Russian (by Mariia), Spanish (by Carmen jr), Welsh (by Geraint) and English (Nick).

Testing the carrying capacity of the Sweet Track – the re-constructed Neolithic trackway: Debra, Geraint, Jen, Maryam, Karla, Mariia, Carmen, Tomas, Carmen, Stefan, Mansur, Nick


Sunday lunch at the Piper’s Inn in Ashcott… In front: Mansur, Nick, Jen, Debra, Carmen; behind: Maryam, Karla, Geraint, Mariia, Tomas, Carmen, Stefan

A couple of days later, Andrew and Rachael arrived with Sophie and George – and Andrew installed a swing-seat that he’d made for us! It’s now a rather magnificent feature in the garden.

Sophie enjoying the swing of the new seat with designer and dad Andrew.

The Little Grebe: Britain’s most under-rated bird (part 2)

On a cold, grey, windy day on the east side of Lindisfarne, about seven years ago, I sat in a bird hide watching a lone little grebe on a small lake. Frankly, I’d expected a bit more… I was on a trip to the island with the vicar factory, and during the free afternoon I decided to head to the bird hide that I had spotted on the map. As Lindisfarne is well known for its birding, my expectations were higher than just the one bird.

That was the day that I discovered that little grebes are very watchable. They are busy birds, and for the half hour I was there this little grebe was constantly diving for food. I found myself enthralled to watch it.

A few years later I wrote a blog article called “Britain’s most under-rated bird (part 1)“, featuring a couple of decent photos of a little grebe in winter plumage: and I intended to make my case a few weeks later once I had acquired some photos of their breeding plumage… but I’ve only just succeeded. I could try to make this sound like a long and arduous trail with lots of twists and turns of fate – but that would be untrue! The little grebe is a common waterbird – just rather little, so photographing it well necessitated it’s being fairly close in good lighting.

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Little grebe at Ham Wall

Little grebe at Ham Wall: look at the water before and after!

The Tor Hide at Ham Wall provides some good photographic opportunities for grebes. They swim around in front of the hide with the appearance of serenity… but the photo here, showing the calm water in front and the churned-up water behind, shows just how hard the bird is working to move around!

The little grebe is also known as the dabchick, a name that strikes me as a bit patronising on account of its diminutive size – but it’s still a grebe and thus quite specialised, particularly for diving fast after small aquatic prey. Perhaps if it was called the ‘chestnut-throated grebe’ it would be given more respect…

It also has a rather striking call – a loud whinnying call which is instantly recognisable when you know what it is. It featured on Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day in July 2016, and is also listed in their list of top ten strangest bird sounds.

The other day I visited the Catcott Lows nature reserve with Jen and her mum, going to the new Tower Hide. Although it’s a lovely location the lake was bit lacking in bird life – but there was an active little grebe on the lake. Some years after that day on Lindisfarne, I still find little grebes very watchable – capable of redeeming a dull day anywhere!

As luck would have it, only a few days after posting this blog, I found myself visiting the National Trust’s Wallington estate in Nortthumberland. On one of the large ponds there was a very obliging little grebe that was nowhere near as shy and retiring as the species is meant to be. Hence I ended up with my best photo yet of a little grebe in breeding plumage!

An obliging Little Grebe at the NT Wallington estate.

Wildlife surprises on Shapwick Heath

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Jen and Rachel on the replica of the Sweet Track at Shapwick Heath.

Just over a week ago Jen’s friend Rachel visited us from Vienna. They were discussing what to do, so I persuaded them that it would be a great treat to go on a walk on Shapwick Heath, ending at a bird hide. 🙂 This would give Rachel an experience of the Somerset Levels, by going through woodland and around marshland, and seeing the reconstructed Neolithic Sweet Track. The fact that some bird-watching might happen as well was of course pure coincidence… ahem…

When we arrived at the Decoy Hide,  I gave them a rather waffly introduction to the birds on the lake – many of which were wintering ducks. I also pointed out the great crested grebes, and said that they’re well known for an elaborate courtship ritual called the weed dance, which I had never seen before. Shortly afterwards, Jen noticed that a pair of them were looking amorously at each other. To my astonishment, about ten minutes later this pair rushed together with beaks full of weed, and performed the entire dance in full view of the hide!

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Great Crested Grebes doing the weed dance in front of the Decoy Hide on Shapwick Heath.

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Little egret fishing at Noah’s Lake on Shapwick Heath.

A few days later John Linney came down to visit from Cheltenham. This time we went to Noah’s Lake at the eastern end of Shapwick Heath: there seemed to be thousands of wigeon wintering on the lake, along with a small number of pintails and other species. We had a good sighting of a kingfisher fishing, though it sped away before I could photograph it. There was also a little egret fishing close to the hide, which provided a great photographic opportunity.

As we walked back to the car park we noticed a couple of mid-sized starling flocks flying over. Last week, with Jen and Rachel, we had watched the starlings roosting from Ham Wall, but they had moved away from where they had been earlier in the winter, where they had settled close to the path, to somewhere that looked about a mile distant: it was a bit of an anti-climax. I therefore hadn’t mentioned them to John and assumed that the flocks flying over were merely a splinter group. Then it dawned on me: the starlings were re-locating again, and had chosen Shapwick Heath! Indeed there was a small crowd coming in from Ham Wall with the same realisation. John and I turned back and were almost too late for the best display: but what we saw was the best murmuration that I have seen since arriving in the area. John was delighted by what he saw – as indeed were the groups arriving from Ham Wall.

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Starlings on Shapwick Heath

Both of these experiences reminded me of the unpredictability of wildlife watching – which is a part of the essential charm of it as a pursuit!

Refreshment or burnout?

Jen and I have just been to an excellent Pastoral Refreshment Conference, an annual event at Hothorpe Hall in Leicestershire. It’s run by Living Leadership, an organisation which aims not only to train pastors, but to enable them to be able to sustain ministry over many years.

It’s an issue I’m passionate about because I’m all too aware of how often ministers burn out or fall into serious sin. For example, at a well-known Anglican church over the last twenty years, two associate ministers had to leave because of depression, two others through having affairs, and then the senior pastor had to leave, also because of an affair. I am convinced that ministers need to be living healthy, balanced lives – and failure to do so impairs our witess to the good news of the gospel, which is at the heart of what we do.

Mark Meynell, the speaker at the Pastoral Refreshment conference.

Mark Meynell, the speaker at the Pastoral Refreshment conference. (source)

The speaker for the conference was Mark Meynell, who was an associate pastor at All Souls, Langham Place. Jen had heard him speak regularly and had found his preaching to be particularly helpful. Then after some years Mark admitted that he had been suffering from depression throughout his time there, and some time after that resigned from his job.

Jen and I missed the first talk on the Wednesday evening (we were late!), but heard the evening session when Mark talked in detail about his depression. He described what it was that had triggered it, and how he coped (or didn’t) with the aftermath. It was a powerful session because he didn’t give easy answers, and shared honestly about the bleakness and blackness of the hardest times. (His blog describes some of this experience here).

At one point the next day, as Mark was describing the reality of being in depression, I wasn’t entirely sure how he was going to pull the series through: after all, the conference was about ‘refreshment’ rather than ‘depression’! I need not have feared because his talk on the final morning was both refreshing and very challenging. He didn’t join all the dots, but he’s writing a book that probably fills a few of the gaps.

Inferring somewhat, at some point Mark took a step of faith to believe that the gospel is true, even though he didn’t have the right feelings. A key verse for him is from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, “we live by faith, not by sight” (here) – in other words, if it’s true, it doesn’t matter what we feel. What the New Testament doesn’t offer Christians is an easy, struggle-free life – and Paul certainly doesn’t, either. When he talks about “light and momentary troubles” (here), he’s downplaying the ordeals that he describes in detail elsewhere (such as imprisonment, floggings and shipwrecks: here).

Towards the end, Mark played us a song by Steven Curtis Chapman which expressed his own battle after heart-rending tragedy.

After returning from the conference I came across a very moving interview with Chapman himself, a year and a half after his own tragedy. It’s a very powerful testimony (so much so that one of the interviewers struggles with his own emotions).

One of the most refreshing aspects of the conference was the willingness to tackle a difficult subject. The more healthily pastors can talk about issues like depression, the more easily we’ll be able to assist those going through similar experiences – but also, the more we’ll be enabled to take preventive steps for ourselves.

What’s the most important aspect of the gospel?

As we approach the Easter season, I am reminded of a question that I was asked some years ago, by John, an interviewer while I was in the application process for ordination. Without intending to, I completely bamboozled him with my answer.

The question was outwardly straightforward: “What’s the most important aspect of the gospel?”. I’ve since discovered that this is a fairly standard question for ordination candidates to be asked, and there are a number of basic answers, depending upon your theological preferences – none of which I gave.

For example, I could have focussed on the events around Christmas (in theological language, the incarnation, when God became man in Jesus). Without this, the other extraordinary events of Jesus’ life could not have happened. 

Or I could have looked at the events of Good Friday: through Jesus’ one, perfect sacrifice of himself on the cross, for our sake, Jesus opened the way for each one of us to have a living and active relationship with God. Everything else is a bonus.

The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, which may be the site where Jesus’ body was taken, and from which Jesus rose from the dead. (Photo © Philip Benshmuel; original here)

Alternatively, I could have chosen Easter, which celebrates the resurrection: the fact that Jesus rose bodily from the dead: the crowning triumph of Jesus life on earth, when he showed that he had defeated both sin and death.

Instead I said, without hesitation, “the fact that it’s true, that’s what’s most important about the gospel”.

“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” spluttered John, “the fact that it’s true, is that all you can say?”

My point was that the gospel is based on historical fact – most particularly as recorded  in the four reasonably-independent biographies known to us as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – rather than upon myth or legend, or some esoteric knowledge that only the chosen few have access to. I’d be tempted to answer the same way today.

However, if I’d answered the question the way John wanted me to answer, I’d choose Easter and the Resurrection. This is the defining event of Christianity: it’s the miracle that trumps all the others, where even death itself was defeated. All four gospels climax with it and provide evidence for it. The incarnation may have paved the way for it, and Jesus needed to go through the one perfect sacrifice on the cross for it to happen, but it’s the resurrection that is the greatest triumph of all.

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

The end of the rope

Some stories just don’t seem to die.

It was Christmas morning in Chilton Polden. I’d just ended the service when Chris Lush came up to the front, armed with a package – and, explaining it to the congregation, presented it to me… It was the end of the bell-rope that I’d pulled off during the installation back in May – and now suitably mounted, framed and captioned!

The end of the bell rope...

The end of the bell rope…

Jack Bevins’ reflection on the incident

In the meantime, one of our friends from Worcestershire (Jack Bevins) had given some creative thought to the same event…

For some reason, I think I may not have heard the last of that incident!