Sunday, January 30, 2011

Not Just Any Old Iron.......

Over the years I must have opened and closed hundreds of gates during country walks and I've always been intrigued by the wide range of traditional latches and fastenings, many made locally by blacksmiths. These are now being replaced by modern, mass-produced galvanished versions, which I doubt will be anywhere near as durable as the rusty iron originals. This hook for a chain fastening is on a gatepost on the footpath to Aydon Castle, near Corbridge.

One of things I like about the originals is that, many years after they were made, you can still see the marks where the blacksmiths hammer crashed into red-hot iron, sending out a shower of sparks. Every piece is unique.

There was once a substantial rural industry in small iron objects like this made in local smithies. Chains, forged a link at a time ....

... sometime with a distinctive twist.

Not all of these objects are hand-made - I suspect this lovely nail, with its spiral twist that would make it very difficult to pull out, must have been made by some mass-production process - but rust adds a lovely patina to the surface.

Here's a combination of cast iron and wrought iron, at the entrance to a bridge over the River Tees downstream from High Force.

I particularly like this chain and swivel hook, forged from thick wire, that dangles from a gate on the fells above St. John's Chapel in Weardale.

Generations of hands that have pushed aside this iron gate latch have polished the surface smooth.

Time takes its toll and eventually they'll all rust away - the last vestiges of the small, everyday objects that were once turned out in slack periods by rural blacksmiths, until a bigger job came along.


Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bottle kilns

Most abandoned industries tend to leave an ugly scar on the countryside but this pair of bottle kilns, on the hillside just north of Corbridge in Northumberland, make an elegant addition to the rural landscape. They were part of Walker's Corbridge Fire Brick and Sanitary Tube Works and were built sometime around 1840, operating until 1910. Bricks, tiles and chimney pots were moulded by hand using wooden patterns and then fired, sometimes for weeks on end.  Rather an elegant piece of industrial archaeology. This view probably hasn't changed much since 1840, except for the power transformer on the pole.
You can find some more images of these structures, including interior views here

Monday, January 24, 2011

Small, but Beautifully Formed...

If you are a botanist, mid-winter can be a bit of a lean time of the year unless you turn your attention to some of the smaller members of the plant kingdom - like mosses, for example. They're evergreen and many species make a lot of growth during milder periods in winter. Indeed, for species that live in woodland or amongst grass winter is their window of opportunity, when there's plenty of light available, before they are shaded by a woodland canopy or lush grassland sward. Add to that the fact that many mosses switch into reproductive mode in autumn and winter and produce their spore capsules, and that there are an awful lot of species out there, and you soon find that these diminutive plants have their own particular fascination. The example above, producing a forest of spore capsules, is Dicranoweisia cirrata or, more prosaically, common pincushion moss - a species with a liking for colonising the tops of old fence posts.
This is one of the commonest of all mosses, Hypnum cupressiforme or cypress-leaved plait moss. This picture is a bit small but if you double-click on it (and all the others, for that matter) the resemblance to the scaly leaves of a cypress tree is evident and the leaves do look as though they've been plaited, although .....

... if you look at the shoots sideways-on another distinguishing feature is revealed - the way in which all the leaves curve in the same direction on the underside of the shoots.

There are several varieties of Hypnum cupressiforme that are given their own specific names by dedicated bryologists (botanists who study mosses). This is probably the most typical version though, which produces a forest of tan-coloured spore capsules at this time of year. Sometimes you'll find whole fallen tree trunks covered with a silky mat of this moss.

This species, which grows in short grass, often on bank tops, is Pseudoscleropodium purum (say it slowly and savour the name, it has a nice alliterative sound to it, even if you have an aversion to Latin names). Its common name is neat feather moss and it's distinctive feature is the way its neat, cusp-shaped leaves overlap one another, giving the shoots this stout, swollen look.

And finally, another moss growing here on top of a grassy bank - the splendid Hylocomium splendens, also known as glittering wood-moss, with its magnificent red stems.

So that's four species - now I need to learn to identify the remaining 759 species....

For more on mosses, click here...

... and for a review of an interesting-sounding book on mosses (which I haven't read yet), take a look at Lesley's Blooms and Beasties Blog...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Teesdale in the Snow

Today's Guardian Country Diary is an account of a visit to Teesdale, just before the last fall of snow began to thaw. The dale is exceptionally beautiful when it's snow-covered - if you can reach it. This is the view looking upstream in the middle dale from the road just east of Middleton-in-Teesdale (it looks better if you double-click on this image and the one below).

The valley floor here is a patchwork of small farms, famous for their haymeadows which have progressively finer displays of wildlfowers in summer as you travel further up the valley.
All the farms in the dale that belong to the Raby Estate are whitewashed, supposedly because a former Duke was refused shelter during a storm at a farm that he mistakenly believed belonged to a tenant - and he was determined never to make the same mistake again.

These are hay barns at Bowlees, where you can cross the River Tees at Wynch Bridge, a precarious suspension footbridge at a point where the river sweezes through a narrow gorge below. The bridge offers ...

... fine views downstream and ....

... upstream....

... where the waterfalls of Low Force are a scenic feature.

During the coldest weeks of the winter the river froze here, then during a thaw the rising water shattered the ice into four inch-thick plates that were perched on the rocks in midstream and on the riverbank when we visited.
We were heading up-river, towards High Force, into an icy, face-numbing wind blowing down from Dufton Fell ....

.. but nevertheless there were a few signs of spring, even in these freezing conditions; catkins of goat willow forcing their way out from under bud scales.

High Force, the highest waterfall on the river (but not the longest - that's Cauldron Snout, upstream, that tumbles over a lot of rock steps on its way down). When the river is in spate, after a sudden thaw for example, water cascades over both sides of High Force's central rocky pillar but on this visit it was relatively tranquil, although the waterfall's spray had frozen into some impressive stalactites on the rock face.

It was something of a relief to turn our backs to the wind and head for home. This photo sums up the icy chill of the day, with long shadows cast at the end of a short winter afternoon.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Glorious Sunset (Shell)

I can't walk along a beach without picking up a pocketful of shells but it's a while since I've seen this one - a Faroe sunset shell Gari fervensis, picked up on Warkworth beach yesterday.....

.... and here's where the name comes from - markings like rays of the setting sun on the horizon.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


This flock of whooper swans was cruising the small lake that forms behind Warkworth Dunes on the Northumberland coast this afternoon.....

.....all adults except for one juvenile.....

... with a lot of noisy calling .......wonderful wild sounds that you can listen to by clicking here......
..until they all took off and headed over to the cereal fields to feed....

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Great Pied Mountain Finches on the bird table

Back in the days when Thomas Bewick was engraving the plates for his famous History of British Birds (published between 1797 and 1804) bramblings were also known as great pied mountain finches , and also as tawny buntings. The specimen that he drew and then engraved came from "high, moory grounds". These days - in my part of Durham at least - bramblings are fast becoming garden birds. We currently have a small flock of over a dozen birds visiting the bird table and at the moment there are more bramblings than chaffinches in the garden. 

It's interesting to note how many species that were once uncommon on bird tables - long-tailed tits, goldfinches and siskins, for example - have become resident bird-table feeders, perhaps as a result of the wider countryside becoming less hospitable. Wood pigeons too have become garden birds, breeding three times a year in our garden and opting for easy handouts rather than foraging for themselves. Are we developing an ornithological  dependency culture and how is this unnaturally high concentration of bird species in a single location affecting their behavioural interactions?

What I find particularly interesting is the pecking order that develops amongst this disparate group of bird table visitors. Greenfinches used to rule the roost until the siskins, which are remarkable aggressive despite being only half the size of a greenfinch, arrived in mid-winter. Now the bramblings, which I always looked on as being rather timid during their rare appearances, seem to be becoming remarkably assertive in the finch hierachy now that they've arrived mob-handed. Do they become more aggressive because they gain confidence from being present as a flock?

One particularly enjoyable aspects of the bramblings' continued presence at this time of year is the way in which their breeding plumage develops - especially cock birds like this one.

For a fine photographic summary of a garden's bird visitor's, take a look at Midmarsh John's blog, where he is currently celebrating the second anniversary of his excellent blog. 

Friday, January 7, 2011


Soon after the waxwings moved on a party of bullfinches arrived on the crab apple tree in the garden, to feed on what was left of the shredded fruits, and they have been visiting frequently all day. The crab apples provide a useful diversion from our flowering cherry and pear blossom buds, which these birds tend to feed on from now until spring - although I'd have the bullfinches than the Concorde pears, which aren't very flavoursome. Generations of gardeners have lamented the ravages of bullfinches on their fruit trees. In his Journal entry of February 7th. 1791 Gilbert White, of Natural History of Selborne fame, wrote: "Bull-finches make sad havoc among the buds of my cherry, and apricot trees: they also destroy the buds of the goose-berries, and honey-suckles!" He also implicated greenfinches and, more improbably, grosbeaks in the devastation.

I have a suspicion that it's the seeds in the crab apples that the bullfinches are after, rather than the rotten fruits themselves, which are on the point of disintegration anyway.

As far as I can recall, we usually only have one family party of bullfinches in the garden in winter with just a single male, but over the last couple of days there have been four males in full, magnificent breeding plumage on the tree, which has generated some conflict.

Keeping wild bullfinches in cages has long been illegal but they were once popular cage birds and some bird fanciers learned that if they were fed exclusively on hemp seed their plumage would turn completely black. Birds can't make red or yellow carotenoid pigments, which come completely from their plant diet, either directly (from pear buds, in the case of bullfinches for example) or indirectly from eating animals that eat plants (from caterpillars in the case of blue tits), so it must be that hemp seed is low in these pigments and high in other darker ones that accumulate in the birds' feathers. But, as Gilbert White noted, all bullfinches are not equally susceptible. Here he is again, in his Journal entry for December 9th. 1781: "George Tanner's bullfinch, a cock bird of this year, began from its first moulting to look dingy; and is now quite black on the back, rump and all; and very dusky on the breast. This bird has lived chiefly on hemp-seed. But Dewey's and Horley's two bull-finches, both of the same age with the former, and also of the same sex, retain their natural colours, which are glossy and vivid, tho' they both have been supported by hemp seed. Hence the notion that hemp seed blackens bull-finches, does not hold good in all instances; or at least not in the first year."

If you are interested in reading more of Gilbert White's Journal entries, grouped together by year, they can be found by searching on the wonderful The Natural History of Selborne blog . Click here, for example, for his Journal entries for today, 7th. January between 1768 and 1793, which include mention of the first crossing from England to France by balloon, in 1785.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Better Late than Never...

Given that this winter has delivered one of the biggest waxwing eruptions in the North East in recent memory, we were feeling pretty disappointed that we hadn't seen a single one - until we pulled up the bedroom blind this morning and were greeted with this spectacle. Everyone seems to have a waxwing photo on their blog - so here are a few more...

A flock of about 20 were feeding on the rotting fruits of the crab apples (cv. Golden Hornet) outside the window, which had produced a bumber crop of apples this autumn. The birds staged a lightening raid, shredding the fruits for about 30 minutes before heading off into another garden ...... and they haven't been back. A magical half-hour, though.

A bird that looks permanently peeved....

Sunday, January 2, 2011


"On the land they are dull and heavy" wrote the Reverend F.O. Morris B.A., describing cormorants in his A History of British Birds (3rd. edn., 1891). They may be heavy but this prolific (and often unreliable) 19th. century author and naturalist can't have looked too closely at cormorants because their feathers have a very attractive blue-green-purple iridescence when their plumage catches the light at the right angle. 

These birds, looking very satisfied with their morning's fishing, were roosting in the trees on the banks of the Tyne between Wylam and Newburn today.  Morris describes how cormorants were once tamed in Britain for fishing, mentioning that "King James the First was fond of this pursuit, and had a 'Master of the Royal Cormorants' ". Apparently the birds were kept in ponds at the site of the present Houses of Parliament. Morris personally watched tame cormorants kept by a Captain Salvin catching trout for their master in a small beck near his home in Yorkshire, but doesn't mention how the birds were persuaded not to swallow the fish; I imagine their throats were constricted with a ligature. 

The fishing skills of cormorants have long been resented by anglers, who still regard them with murderous intent. Morris mentions that shooting cormorants was once considered something of a challenge, even when they were only swimming rather than flying."In the old days of flint-and-steel guns," he wrote, "the first flash used to send the cormorant down, so quick was his eye, and even now it is difficult to get within shot." Cormorants may be adept at eluding shooters, but one unfortunate bird didn't see an express train coming. Morris relates the tale of a bird that "was struck down and killed by the funnel of the engine of an express train, as it was crossing the Lock of Spynie, in Elginshire, on 20th. of September 1852", which may well be the first account of a bird killed by the new-fangled technology of a steam train.