In May/June 2019, I am cycling the length on Britain, visiting all the places that I have lived and a few friends along the way. This is a charity ride aimed to raise funds for Alzheimer's Research UK and the Spinal Injuries Association. I will also have fun looking for various features along the way and exploring the meaning of memory
My bogie with the weather on higher level routes continued with that wonderful driving soft rain typical of the highlands today. Luckily I was heading downhill from Tomintoul (I think the highest village in the UK) and across Speyside, where there are plenty of native Scots Pine forests. I called in at Loch Garten RSPB centre partly to try and see a few of the specialist birds of pine and also to shelter from the rain for a while. I managed to see a crested tit, though my efforts to point it out to others failed (also added tree creeper at point blank range, and goldcrest (I cannot hear these when riding, but much easier on foot).
After Loch Garten, it was on through the rain to cross the Spey (a fine river), cross the Slochd pass (405m), pass through the outskirts of Inverness, cross the Kessock Bridge and arrive at my Finlay and Linda’s house on the Black Isle. Both are ex-colleagues from JNCC, and I was sad to find Finlay a little ill, likely having eaten something bad at the weekend. Get well soon Finlay!
Statistics: 90.1 km with 828 m ascent. Running total: 2562 km, 24443 m ascent. 133 bird species.
I have now visited all but one of the places that I have lived in the UK, the last is relatively distant on the north end of Orkney mainland and it will take all week to get there. The weather forecast today was dire (including a yellow warning for excessive rain and thunderstorms) so my analysis of the weather charts early this morning indicated that I should set off at around 1030 to minimise risk of hitting torrents of rain. At around 0915, I noticed that it had stopped raining (it was not supposed to do that) and a quick recheck of the weather maps showed the forecast had changed and it would be a good idea to set off immediately. So I did. As it happened, there was light rain/drizzle/mist for much of the way, so I got wet, but no miserably so. The route was over the hills to the Don Valley and then follow the Don until the steep hill over the pass at the Lecht (the highest permanently inhabited building in Britain) and then down to Tomintoul.
I was really hoping to bring you some stunning Scottish scenery pictures today, but no luck. I was also hoping to add mountain hare, red deer and possibly ring ousel to my trip list – no luck either. But the Hotel Square in Tomintoul excelled by noticing me arriving outside and coming out to welcome me and offer me an immediate cup of tea. All hospitality should be like that! I notice also from my window a cycle holiday support bus from a well-known company and I deduce from their website that participants are on a 22 day, 1600 km Lands End to John O’Groats run costing £3,100 (they pay for their own suppers and some lunches in addition), with all their luggage being transported in the bus. A different way from myself, but no doubt they are having fun!
After yesterday’s ride from Montrose to Aberdeen, I came back to our current home near Banchory. Since I have lived here for 32 years (more than half my life), I think this house deserves a post to itself.
A croft is a small farm, with usually enough land attached to enable a small family to be self-sufficient with a bit of trading. Drumshalloch Croft lies on the Leys Estate associated originally with Crathes Castle and when it was crofted, had around six associated fields. Farming in the 20th century tended towards larger, more efficient farms based on an increasing use of machinery (a trend that continues) and Drumshalloch Croft ceased being a farm in the early 1970s. In 1987, Leys Estate sold the buildings to me. The croft house faces south and its downstairs rooms have high ceilings, with correspondingly low ceilings upstairs. This makes the downstairs rooms very light and was probably the one thing that attracted me most. A set of steadings (outbuildings used for cows and a diary) were also on the plot with a couple of sheds completing the buildings. The croft comes with its own water supply and septic tank.
When I moved to Drumshalloch Croft in 1987, Banchory village was about 2 km away and the little valley it is set within was totally dark at night. Banchory has been expanded, basically as a dormitory town for Aberdeen (though the planners claim otherwise) and nearly all the addition has been on “our” side of the village. The dark was lost in the valley about 15 years ago, and within the next two years it is likely that houses will be built up to about 100m from the croft. Sadly I doubt that we will stay much after that occurs – the peace will be gone too.
In Autumn 1979, I moved to Aberdeen to start work on a new project mapping seabirds at sea. Aberdeen was booming due to the North Sea oil industry, and an amazing amount of offshore construction was also occurring. The concern about the effects of offshore oil spills had generated my job. The pedal north from Montrose was fast as it was partly on the main road that bought all the materials and personnel northwards in the 1970s and 1980s, but is now far less used. Aberdeen was also a major fishing port with a daily fish market. There are more or less no fishing vessels working from Aberdeen these days.
In 1979, our team of four working on seabirds at sea were allocated a basement in the Nature Conservancy Council office. I spent a lot of time at sea, but on land I initially shared a flat in Colville Place with Tim, a friend of mine from Hedon who was studying at Aberdeen University. Shortly after we moved in, I went to a party of one of Tim’s friends at the University and met Anne. A very good introduction, that has lasted!
In the early 1980s, I moved into Anne’s flat in Nigg Kirk Road. My main memory of that time was trying to produce maps of our seabird observations using Aberdeen University’s mainframe computer. I had written a long Fortran computer program to do this, but it needed all of the resources of Aberdeen University’s computer to run, and thus had to be run at the dead of night. I had to use a dial-up modem with a telephone coupler on a portable terminal that used thermal paper (no screen) lying on Anne’s living room floor. I could not see the results until the next day when I would pedal across to the University computer centre and collect the maps. Of course I made many mistakes, which meant yet more work in the middle of the night.
After a while, Anne brought a house in Abbey Road, while I moved to a house to the north-west of Aberdeen – Hillhead of Clinterty. This was owned by an Aberdonian Heather, who was an art lecturer in Manchester. John (who I visited in Silverdale) had a link to Manchester and we could rent the house for most of the year, except the summer holidays when Heather would use it. It was a very fine location, but could be very cold.
In summer time I would either stay with Anne in Abbey Road, Torry or for one year in a flat owned by my friend Hew also in Abbey Road, but for much of the time I was away at sea.
Just around the corner from Abbey Road lies the current JNCC Aberdeen office in Inverdee House. Being the middle of the seabird counting season (and a Friday), only a few staff were in when I called by – luckily one was my friend Sonia. We had a tea and lunch together.
Regrettably I could not stay long because, as I was entering Aberdeen, I had hit a pothole very badly (I could not swerve to avoid it due to traffic). That pothole broke my rear wheel (two spokes pulled right through the rim), and I was keen to try to get it replaced while I was in Aberdeen. After two “we are too busy” phone responses, Holburn Cycles said that they could probably help – and help they did. John, the mechanic there, found a second-hand perfect replacement rear wheel in his workshop and within 20 minutes of arrival I was back on my way again. Exemplary service once again from the cycle shops of Britain. Holburn Cycles are going to get more trade from me!
A travel day with strong wind (mostly) pushing me along started in Anstruther where I had stayed with my JNCC friend and colleague Kelly, along with her family.
I have been very poor at keeping you updated on statistics. The most important is that the fund-raising passed £7000 today. I am not sure that I will achieve my £8000 target though, so have been pondering other fund-raising ideas. How would a sponsored vote on whether my beard and moustache stays or goes be received? could I sell enough calendars of bathtubs in fields to make producing them worthwhile? All thoughts on these ideas or any others would be welcome.
Other statistics: total distance so far: 2353 km (=1462 miles), 23128 m ascent, 116 new bathtubs in fields sighted, bird list at 117, live mammal list at 19 with a further 4 as squished vehicle victims.
I had been looking forward to today for much of my trip – the Isle of May is a superb seabird colony in the entrance to the Firth of Forth and I had the privilege of being warden there in summer 1979 – just a mere 40 years ago! My main role was to greet visitors to the island and guide them in what to do, and what not to do. I also supported the research being carried out on the seabirds and generally make sure the National Nature Reserve was well looked after. There was a large gull colony that covered most of the island and important numbers of cliff nesting birds and puffins. I cannot remember how many visitors came, but I do not think it was much more than 1000 (I did count, and somewhere at home I will have the report). We (myself and whichever researchers were about) lived in a small research hut called the Mouse House after the project on mice that had allowed the hut to be built. There were three lighthouse keepers manning the island and occupying both the lighthouse itself and other accommodation. A bird observatory occupied a disused lighthouse building and was home to around 4-6 birders/ringers who changed over on an approximately weekly basis. Travel to the island was on shellfish creel boats, one in particular run from Crail by Jimmy Smith.
Travel nowadays to the island is on a boat carrying around 100 people that goes nearly every day of the week for a 5 month season. Last year there were around 13,500 visitors to the island.
The main attraction of the island is undoubtedly the puffins. More than 40,000 pairs nest on the island. Visitors are guided to stay on well marked paths in order to avoid collapsing the puffin burrows that are more or less everywhere where the soil is suitable. These paths were all there in 1979, but the sign-posting and roping was not.
The number of researchers on the island has risen to around 14 now – sadly my friend Mike who was I think instrumental in getting me the job as warden in 1979 was coming onto the island a day after my visit, so I did not see him, but I did get a cup of tea with some of the research team. He has maintained studies there since 1973, an extraordinary record. At present the main focal species appears to be the shag (a type of cormorant) and most of the population is marked with uniquely lettered colour rings. These can be read with a telescope in all seasons and thus the detailed life histories of some birds can be followed.
Yesterday was also another day for co-incidences. In 2016, late in my time with JNCC, I took part in a six week research trip counting whales and dolphins in the Atlantic off Scotland, Ireland and France. The poor sea-handling and lack of mirrors on the ship caused me to grow my beard. On that ship we worked in groups of two, and my co-researcher was Becci. I was thus amazed to see Becci step on board the boat to the Isle of May as we were boarding in Anstruther. We did a lot of catching up on the way out and it turns out that she is planning a long bike ride herself, following the grey whale migration southwards off western North America to Mexico this coming autumn (thegraywhalecycle.com). That is a truly impressive trip (and makes me rather envious!). Good luck Becci!
In 1979, one of the island’s visitors was a young artist called Keith Brockie. He later produced a beautiful book: One Man’s Island of paintings done on the Isle of May. One of my memories was of drinking rather too much of my home-brewed beer in one session with him (turns out no-one is producing home-brew on the island just now – surely a gap?). Anyway, I was delighted to here that by yet another co-incidence he was on the island and I tracked him down to find him sketching a razorbill and its chick – not much change there – but then why change something so good already?
Scotland is not a huge country, but every time I cross the Forth road bridge I am reminded of my friend who, several years ago, called me after crossing the bridge to say that they would be with me very shortly, not quite realising that it was another 2.5 hours to Banchory. I had a few problems getting out of Edinburgh due to my navigation system not liking the incredibly poor road surfaces (or at least that is one possible reason!). Once onto the old railway lines to the NW of the city the surfaces were much better (it is SO sad that the lines of the old railways were sold off so readily in most areas – what an asset they are now)
The Forth is now crossed at Queensferry by three bridges, from three different centuries. The rail bridge is iconic, being seriously over-engineered for its purpose (following the under-engineered Tay rail bridge disaster); the road bridge is a suspension bridge built in the 1960s that was over-used and had started to show signs of wear, while the newest Queensferry crossing is a cable-stayed bridge that opened a couple of years ago.
Nowadays the road bridge is primarily for busses, bikes and pedestrians, though I did see a few cars driving across it too. It is being maintained, so I guess that it could be used in emergency also.
It was Father’s Day on Sunday and of course I thought of my father then. More significantly though yesterday (18 June) was his birthday, and I always think more about him on that day. He would have been 94.
Here’s to all Dads and their good influences on our lives.
I am writing this about 4 km from Scotland – so today was the last in England, in its far north-east. The day started off though with one of those co-incidences that make life fun. I had noticed that my friend Rob Hutchinson who usually is leading bird tours in the far East for his company, Birdtour Asia was on holiday in coastal Northumberland; we suggested having fish and chips in Seahouses today, but Rob and his family had decided to visit Alnwick today (where I stayed last night). So we agreed to keep our eyes open for each other but never expected to meet – especially as my navigation system always takes me down minor roads and tracks when it can. So it was a pleasure when I noticed a white car turning off onto another road in front of me suddenly stop and sound its horn. Rob had spotted me in the distance!
I wanted to visit Seahouses since it is the jumping off point to visit the Farne Islands. I have a strong memory of a visit in the early 1960s that I think was my first exposure to a seabird colony. Much of my professional life has been associated with seabirds, and in relation to albatrosses still is. If I was not doing this ride, I would likely be counting a seabird colony somewhere! Sadly I do not have any photograph to hand of that visit, though I am pretty sure there is one somewhere (maybe I’ll find it and add it as a coda to this blog sometime).
Some may have noticed that I said little about my ‘academic’ time at Durham. To be honest, I found most of the course work there in my time rather dull and uninspiring. I remember clearly having an argument with one lecturer about his lecture on territoriality that was at least ten years out of dates in terms of literature used and concepts described. Another lecturer seemed more interested in the young female students than in the job of imparting knowledge. One lecturer, Peter Evans, was though on my wavelength. One of his specialities was shorebirds and his students spent much time catching wading birds – I joined in, as I did with other ornithological field work with the Durham students. We also had undergraduate field trips – and this is my excuse to include this here – we once went to Lindisfarne mudflats.
Onwards to Berwick-upon-Tweed. I had long thought the story of the town still being at war with Russia due to an arcane peace treaty not being complete was a nice story – but this afternoon’s research on Wikipedia finds that it is just that – a nice story but untrue!
I did a very bad job of meeting up with people in Durham. Sadly my niece Emily who is just completing her degree had flu and was in bed (get well soon) and I met few folk from Durham years, mostly because I have lost touch. Not so Pauline and her husband (newly-minted) Professor Bob (congratulations). I called in on them for a cup of coffee this morning. We remembered old friends – one of whom we miss badly – Dave Isaac who decided several years ago not to carry on with life. He has also been on my mind since talking to that fellow long-distance charity cyclists about his charity – Suicide Prevention.
It was then onwards to Newcastle and beyond. I was riding in purpose built cycle lanes (or shared lanes) for most of the way until north of Newcastle. These are highly variable, so I thought I’d illustrate a few issues.
Statistics for yesterday, today and cumulatively: 100 km, 89 km and 1971 km. Ascent: 1377 m, 759 m, 19602 m. I have lost track of the tubs at present – lots!