Monday 20 April 2009


Seen at RSPB Rye Meads reserve this afternoon. Yes, I had things to do at home, but the sun was shining and I'll be back at work tomorrow - the housework can (always) wait for another day!

I've seen a Kingfisher at Rye once before, but it was too fleeting a glimpse to be able to get a shot. Today it was clearly checking out the nesting bank they have at the reserve for suitability as a future home and was around for a good while. While we were watching him, a heron flew in as well and helpfully sat himself down on a post and proceeded to have a good old grooming session, all the while fully aware of the line of long lenses poking out of the hide at him!


Friday 17 April 2009

Tesco, Hebrides style!

And a rather appropriate subject for the final post from this trip to the Western Isles really.
Tesco arrived on Lewis last year after taking over a store which was previously operated as Safeway, later becoming Somerfield. There was a mixture of anticipation and unease over the move - many felt that it was only a matter of time before the supermarket giant decided to try Sunday opening - something which would by no means be accepted by the majority of the strongly religious population on the Island. This, remember, is a place where, when planes first started running to and from the Island on a Sunday, the protests were vehement enough to gain national news coverage. Well although we can only look at it from a visitor's point of view, I would have to say that so far so good as far as Tesco are concerned. They have maintained the lines of local produce, and as you can see above the major signage is in both Gaelic and English. Prices appear to be fairly level with the mainland which is also excellent news for the Islanders. Sensibly they have not made so much as a murmur about Sunday opening, although this summer will be their first full tourist season so things could yet change on that front.
Next time I update will be from home. We've had another fantastic trip here in spite of mixed weather last week, the final few days have been glorious though and another good day is forecast for tomorrow, which will at least make out 7.30am ferry crossing somewhat more bearable!

Thursday 16 April 2009

Desert(ed) Island...

Something we have talked about doing pretty much each and every year since we first started visiting the Hebrides is walking across at low tide to visit the island of Vallay - just off the coast of North Uist.  At last today the weather and the tides were right so we set off 1.5 miles across what is for most of the time seabed to explore. Vallay was occupied until 1945 but since then has been abandoned. Vallay House itself is now largely derelict and is unsafe to enter, although it is possible to look in through some of the windows to get a flavour of the former grandness of the interior. If you are interested in finding out more historical details then Google "Vallay House" and it throws up some interesting links. There were others there when we first arrived but once they had left we had the place to ourselves - quite an odd feeling being on an entire Island without anyone else there, we agreed! The house itself is marvellous, and there are remains of lots of other buildings to look at although at the moment we're not clear on what a lot of them are. We'll certainly be hoping to go back at some stage in the future.

It seems almost impossible that already we have to be thinking towards packing up to go home.  Tomorrow will be a day of shopping for Salmon, Pate, oatcakes and Scallops to take home, and revisiting places and people for a last time before driving aboard MV Hebrides on Saturday morning to begin our journey homewards. It'd be hard not to feel a lingering sadness about the idea of leaving but we'll leave that for the ferry on Saturday - to do anything else now would be to spoil our last precious hours here, and anyway we'll be back -once the Islands have got under your skin it's unthinkable that you would not return.


Tuesday 14 April 2009

Danger? Or signs of the times?

Sometimes, when we are out and about, we see a sign by the roadside which either makes us look at each other in bewilderment, or burst out laughing. The first of the shots above was undoubtedly a "burst out laughing" sign - exactly how dangerous IS this person that a sign is required warning oncoming motorists of the possible peril in their path? If such a sign is warranted, the question must be asked should the person referred to be driving at all?! Absolutely hilarious, and seemingly a total waste of someone's money in erecting these signs (oh yes - there is one of these a hundred yards or so each side of the driveway!)
The second sign above falls firmly into the "bewildered" category - I can assure you that having stood taking this picture, I felt that there would not be the slightest risk to me in entering the area. There were no man-traps lining your path to a table, ready to catch you in their vice-like grip should you unwittingly stumble off course... the most vicious animals in the vicinity were the sheep, and the low circular structure to the right of centre is simply a flower bed, not an unfenced well ready to swallow an unwary child.... the most amusing thing is that anyone encountering this picnic area in the first place must, to have reached it, travelled along several miles of narrow, single track road, booby-trapped on a regular basis with blind summits and unexpected twists and turns. Frankly if you've survived that then a picnic area is (possibly quite literally!) a piece of cake!

Sunday 12 April 2009

View from the top...

Today we have done what I class as a proper climb up a hill, and what Ben classes as a bit of a stroll up a slight incline.... the shot above is from the summit of Blaisheval which is just outside North Uist's main town of Lochmaddy. We've been eyeing this one up for years as a relatively straightforward walk which would give good views, but until this year had not managed to work out anywhere sensible to leave the car. The climb was indeed fairly straightforward, and the views were, as you can see, spectacular enough to make it well worth climbing! North Uist is studded all over with the Lochs you see in the picture - in fact this is a pretty typical "aerial" view of the Island - it's often referred to as a drowned landscape, with good reason. The cluster of houses you see towards the right of the shot is Lochmaddy - you might just about be able to make out the Ferry "Hebrides" which had arrived a short time before this was taken - she'd moored up for the night by this time and will be off to Uig on Skye again early tomorrow morning.


Friday 10 April 2009

Desert Island?

Not quite - deserted beach! We walked a mile or so along this glorious beach this afternoon and didn't see another soul. We could easily have gone the same distance again I suspect and still not encountered anyone else, the Hebrides are a bit like that. The beach is at Kilpheadar, to the south west end of South Uist. The majority of the western coast of the Southern chain of Outer Hebridean islands is fringed with these beautiful white sand beaches and on a day like today there is little better in the world than walking on one of them. My 12-24mm lens rather comes into its own in a setting like this as it does like a good sky....!


A job well done....

As I think I mentioned, we had an invitation from Alastair and Elisabeth to go and visit the Blackhouse that Alastair has been restoring - the three pics above show what an amazing job he's done. The first shot is Alastair himself making tea in the kitchen - above his head is the upper level (not altogether authentic but it would be a shame not to make use of the surprising amount of headroom inside) which is reached via a fold down ladder and a trap-door.  The second is the other end of the main room - Ben sitting on the sofa and Elisabeth on the window seat looking out at the amazing view across Bays Loch, and the third shot shows the outside of the cottage along with the neighbours.  The 4' thick stone walls keep out the weather marvellously - while we were there it was blowing a gale and yet once inside you would have no idea....

Thursday 9 April 2009

Anyone for a challenge?

Can anyone confirm an ID on the bird above? We initially thought Meadow Pipit but the colouring doesn't seem quite's more like a Tree Pipit which is illogical on an island with barely any trees.


Wednesday 8 April 2009

Clear skies...

It's been another lovely day - apart from one brief shower around lunchtime, we've had sunshine for pretty much the whole day.  The skies are still mostly clear now - resulting in me being able to take the moon shot above. (Click on the shot to see it full size - much more detail) With no light pollution to worry about, it's remarkably easy to get nice clear shots of the moon - your only real obstacle being the intense shivering caused by the outside temperature, coupled with the fact that as you've just grabbed the camera for a quick shot, you've dashed outside with only a thin fleece on rather than the coat which would have proved so much more sensible!

I could have posted another bird pic today - as we've been to the RSPB reserve at Balaranald. Highlight of the day was a snowy owl, albeit seen at a hell of a distance. No photos of that though as it was just too far away. Apparently he's been seen a few times over the past few days so he might be there if we go back.  We also called in at the Westford Inn (Our "local" - Dad, look it up in the Good Beer Guide!) on the way back through and have been invited to go and see the blackhouse that Alastair has renovated so there may be a picture of that on here in due course.....


Tuesday 7 April 2009

Never believe the weather forecast....

Metcheck had us down for steady rain through most of today, and quite frankly first thing this morning you would have believed them as when we got up the rain was still splattering against the windows and even the sheep were starting to look fed up with it....!
We had, over breakfast, been browsing over the OS map of this area, and had spotted a series of ruined cairns and a stone circle not so far from here, so at the first sign of the weather clearing we decided that it was time to chance it and set off 3 miles up the road to a handy parking place. It was a fairly stiff climb to the first cairn - but this was more to do with the terrain itself than it being particularly steep. Heather and boggy ground do not make for easy walking, and both of us went in above the tops of our boots at least once. We then cut across the hillside to the stone circle (about half of it visible, and quite likely to be older than Stonehenge) before making our way to the summit for the best of the views. By this time the sun was out as you can see, making it just the perfect setting for the super-wide angle lens to come out of the bag....
Bird wise we've had another good day seeing among other things: Stonechat, Meadow Pipit, Cormorants, Redshank, Skylark, Grey Plover again and Wheatear - quite pleased with that last one.  So far we've seen 32 different species of birds in 4 days....Mum - I expect you to be impressed!

Monday 6 April 2009

Foraging and twitching....

Sounds an unhealthy combination, doesn't it! We started today by heading in to the local shop (Take "Local" somewhat loosely - local up here is a 10 mile round trip!) for some more kindling for the fire, then up the road to Hebridean Smokehouse for some of their quite excellent Peat Smoked salmon pate for our lunch. Next stop was McLeans Bakery on Benbecula for some oatcakes to go with the pate! We made the handy discovery last year that they sell nice big bags of broken oatcakes in the shop - usually tucked slightly out of the way to ensure that the tourists buy the posh packets at a higher price, I suspect! Anyhow, at 80p for a bag probably three  times the size of the standard packs, we weren't complaining about a few crumbs in the bottom of the bag!

From there it was on to Creagorry at the lower end of Benbecula. We discovered a couple of years ago that the South Ford as the area is known is a rich picking ground for cockles and mussels - so off we strode armed with a cut down rake (well, it had to be cut down to get it in the back of the car!) and a bucket. A short while later that was dinner sorted out! A quick call into the co-op for those classic shellfish accompaniments of wine, garlic & cream and off we went again.

First priority was to find somewhere for lunch - without any clear idea of where we picked a side road to turn off onto and away we went......sometimes these little turning end up as little more than tracks but this one was fine and eventually we found a nice spot where we could pull off the road with a view over a lovely white sandy beach. The place was teeming with bird-life - including the little chaps above - Ringed and Grey Plovers. First time we'd seen Grey Plovers and I have to confess to only having made a firm ID once back here with the help of Surfbirds bird identifier - I'm afraid we usually find the RSPB one hopeless! We sat outside for quite a while watching them running about and taking the occasional photo......

Back at the cottage now and the wind is howling about the place - it's showering too so the raindrops are splattering against the window. Warm & cosy in the front room though with the fire lit. There is a faint smell of peat smoke in the air and I have a pint of Isle of Skye Brewery's Hebridean Gold at my right hand and a fabulous view out of the doesn't get much better.


Sunday 5 April 2009

Wet 'n' windy...

I would show you a picture to illustrate just HOW wet and windy it is here right now, however I think venturing outside into it with the camera just may not be such a good idea. After some discussion we have decided that as there is no need for us to go out and get wet and blown about, we should just stay here for the time being, hence the shot above. The fire is lit and the room is snug and cosy.  The clouds to the West are brightening a little which is a good sign nthat things may improve in a while, however the weather forecast would currently suggest that this view may be a false optimism. We'll see - it's been wrong before.
Gulls keep blowing sideways past the window at great speed.

Saturday 4 April 2009

We're HERE!

At last - here we are on North Uist.  Concerns about being able to find a solid wi-fi connection for updating this have proved completely unfounded as there is now a broadband connection at the cottage we are staying in. This came as a complete surprise - it's still too new to have been advertised by the cottage's owners yet - so far it seems absolutely fine and wonderfully fast....apparently though when the conditions are bad it can come and go a bit....
We were blessed with marvellous weather on the way up yesterday as this shot of the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge in the Highlands shows. The memorial is wonderful - it stands overlooking the area where the WW2 Commando's were trained, and cannot be missed from the road as you pass by..... There is a small memorial area too where people leave tributes to those they have lost - many of those mentioned lost their lives in the 1939-45 conflict, others took part in that and have passed away since, and the most recent was killed in Iraq in 2007.

Saturday 28 March 2009

Hebrides Countdown 2009....

We're not really birdwatchers, as such, or at least, we would not have described ourselves as such until last years trip to the Hebrides. We have always when we have been up there been regular visitors to the Balranald reserve, where the picture above of a Ringed Plover was taken, but more in a "Let's have a nice walk, oh look there's a bird over there" sort of way....rather than in a "Have you got the binoculars, oh, better take the teleconverter for my lens" way. Somewhere along the line though things seem to have changed. Last year the TC spent more time attached to the camera than not. And when we returned from holiday we joined the RSPB......oh, and I bought myself a 300mm lens.....but obviously we're not really birdwatchers......

In the course of last years trip we saw more than 50 different species of birds, many for the first time. The rarest was an Iceland Gull (resting at Balranald in the course of its migration) and the most exciting probably a White Tailed Eagle (seen at too great a distance to photograph). We saw Golden Eagles almost daily, including on our final afternoon watching, from the cottage, a pair of them quartering the hillside opposite.....amazing. It's been wonderful over the past few years to see them becoming more and more plentiful as well - hopefully the Sea Eagles will go the same way - in a weeks time we'll be finding out!


Sunday 22 March 2009

Nifty Fifty - the project continues....

Having done a few days out last year with just the 50mm lens on board, I decided that the project was worth pushing on with. There is no question that it does make you think more....what is interesting though is that I found it an awful lot easier today than previously, so perhaps you get better at being inventive with practise? We stayed fairly local today albeit thanks to taking the wrong footpath to start with we had a longer walk than expected. It was a beautiful afternoon for a walk too - we can only hope that it is here to stay now, or that at the least we can take the sun with us to the Hebrides in a fortnight!

Saturday 21 March 2009

Hebrides countdown 2009...

On arriving home from a day out today we found a little padded envelope on the doormat...containing the keys to Tigh Alasdair  which will be home for the two weeks we will be on North Uist.  We actually saw the cottage before we first stayed there - we initially looked into staying there the year Ben's parents came with us, but dismissed it as although it is two bedroomed, the second room is effectively a single, with bunks, and we decided that both us and the inlaws were a little old for fighting over who gets the top bunk! Anyway, knowing we were going to be looking for somewhere to stay the following year we decided to drive out on the Sidinish road and take a look at it one afternoon.....we almost dismissed it at that stage as from the road it does look very fact from up close it still looks very small as the photo above shows! Thankfully inside is a bit of a tardis - plenty of room for us and our stuff. The two windows you see at the front are the Kitchen (to the right) and the lounge (to the left). Both are a good size - the kitchen is probably more than twice the size of ours at home here.  In addition the main bedroom is big, with lots of storage, and there is a small bathroom as well as the second bedroom which would qualify as a "good sized single" I think. We mainly use that for storage - it saves cluttering up the rooms we are actually going to use with rucksacks, hamper etc. 

Tuesday 17 March 2009


To the start of a new speedway season. We had our press and practise day at Ipswich today - for the first time this was not open to the general public due to Health & Safety restrictions relating to the stadium. As the main photographer for the official website though, thankfully I still got to attend - excellent for me as it means a sneaky-peek at the new riders, racesuits etc as well as the chance to get a bit of practise shooting action stuff before the season kicks off.

Our team has a fairly familiar look to it this year - with Piotr Swiderski, Tobi Kroner and Jarek Hampel all back from last year, plus the return of "old boys" Leigh Lanham, Carl Wilkinson and Danny King, the only true new faces are Pole Dawid Stachyra and Aussie Kozza Smith - both of whom can be seen kneeling at the front of the picture above.  Nice to see the return of a retro-look to the racesuits too, with the red/white/blue flash round the right knee and the stripes round the arms being a nod both to long term promoter John Louis and to the fact that 2009 marks the 40th anniversary of speedway returning to Ipswich. There is a good, positive feel to the team, with everyone speaking of aiming high and finishing higher up the table than last year's fourth place.

Now I've got the smell and sound of this wonderful sport again I'm looking forward to the season - bring it on!


Thursday 12 March 2009

Hebrides Countdown 2009...

Barra Airport is, you could say, a little unusual. It has two runways, a terminal building, baggage reclaim...nothing too unusual there you would think, until I explain that the runways are, in fact, on the beach! The shot above is a British Airways twin-otter getting ready to take off, and this year we are hoping to take a flight from Benbecula to Barra to experience this unique airport for ourselves.  The flight itself only takes a few minutes, but does have the adtantage of giving some marvellous aerial views of the islands. Oh, before I forget....that baggage reclaim I mentioned earlier? Think "Bus shelter with a conveyor belt inside" and you'd be along the right lines!


Sunday 8 March 2009

Wind in the Willows...

Or at least, one of the characters. This is a water vole - otherwise known by lovers of the book as "Ratty". It was a nice bright day today so we headed out to the RSPB Reserve at Rainham Marshes - first time we'd been. I'd say definitely not the last time though as it's a lovely place. There's a circular trail which runs right the way around - a little over 2 miles apparently and very easy walking - ideal for a day when the ground is wet as the majority of the trails are boardwalk or made up paths.  We encountered Ratty at the very end of our walk - literally a couple of hundred yards from the visitors centre, and had already seen plenty to hold our interest on the way around. First time sighting for us of a Little Egret - although my Mum keeps seeing them all over the place, apparently! Lots of goldfinches on the Nyjer seed feeders, and assorted waterfowl including many Wigeon, shoveller, mallards and others.  I might post up some more pictures over the next few days as I come to them, I got some shots of some of the landscape there too - there are a lot of old Military buildings still there - quite interesting to look at and just begging to be photographed - next time we go I must make sure I take a lens other than the 300mm!

Thursday 5 March 2009

Hebrides Countdown 2009.......

The ferry tickets have arrived, and to our delight they are slightly over half the cost of last years. I should explain that this is not a credit-crunch beating move from CalMac, but is instead a result of something called the Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) which has been introduced as a trial on some of the main Hebridean routes. Our Uig - Lochmaddy route is, thankfully, one of those included in the trial. RET is already making a massive difference to those Island residents who have to commute regularly to and from the mainland for work - to give an idea of the difference the tickets which cost us £125 last year have come in at just £64 this year. Same route, same car, same people, even the same ferry! The theory is that it's likely to significantly boost the Islands economies through the summer with increased tourism also - just how much of a difference this makes however remains to be seen.

The picture above shows the ensign of Calmac Ferry MV Hebrides - taken in brilliant sunshine on our crossing over to Lochmaddy last year. Fingers crossed for such a pleasant crossing this year too!


Monday 2 March 2009

Larry bites the dust....

We have bought a lamb. A whole lamb. Oh, it’s dead you understand, in fact it’s now in our freezer so it’s a good thing it IS dead. I should confirm at this point in the interests of transparency that it’s not one of the beasts in this photo – these chaps are Hebridean sheep and Hebridean sheep, as you can see, have ATTITUDE. No getting eaten for these guys – oh no, nothing that common for them – they’re too busy doing their best impression of nightclub bouncers for passing photographers…….

So – back to the lamb. We’ve been talking about this for a long while as the logical continuation of our quest to make sure that all the meat we buy is the best quality we can, and from animals that have lived as happy lives as possible. So far as we can tell our lamb was indeed happy – he certainly tastes as though he was, although I’m guessing that might have palled a bit in a sort of “uh-oh” type way when the trailer pulled into the abattoir car park……anyway, he turned up, well boxed and packed around with icepacks, on Friday, and a good part of the weekend has been spent cutting bits up and getting them into what are now two VERY well packed freezers……We will be eating quite a lot of lamb over the next little while. It’s a good thing we like lamb. For anyone considering a bulk meat purchase, it certainly seems like a good way of doing it so long as you have the space the freeze that amount. Ours has amounted to around 15kgs of meat I think – possibly a little more, some has been minced, some has been cubed. Every last scrap of the meat from the bones has been rescued and frozen. The slow cooker has been working overtime – it produced a batch of soup overnight on Friday and a batch of curry on Saturday evening. It also cooked the shanks for our dinner last night to perfection.


Thursday 26 February 2009

Hebrides Countdown 2009.....part 3

A definite highlight of the Hebrides is the marvellous white sandy beaches and sparkling clean seas and lochs.  This picture pretty much sums up the word "sparkling" I think! Our first walk when we get up there is usually a beach one - West Beach on Berneray has become a favourite, three miles of wonderful white sand and peace and quiet! This year we have been considering taking a look at Vallay - an uninhabited island off the north west coast of North Uist - to get to it you have to check the tide times carefully - you basically need to follow the tide as it recedes in order to gain as much time as possible on the Island. The main attraction over there is the ruin of Vallay House which looks absolutely fascinating. I think setting an alarm to warn us when the tide is on its way back would be a good plan though, and we will definately be carrying a compass just in case the story told in the article I have linked to comes to life!


Sunday 22 February 2009

Odd shaped balls.....

Well - bit of a grudge match yesterday following the last meeting between the 4ths and Chingford - that resulted in a fairly unflattering scoreline for Harlow, although the fact that we only had 13 players goes some way towards explaining that! Anyhow - it made certain that the entire team were incredibly focussed for yesterdays cup match, never a bad thing. Chingford clearly thought their work was done before they even set foot on the pitch - confident would be one way of putting it, arrogant possibly another - oh how wrong they were to be proved, with the 4ths scoring try after try in the first half, and then carrying on in much the same way in the second.  Final score 43-7, taking Harlow on to the semi-finals of the cup competition which sadly happen when we're on holiday. Well done lads!

Thursday 19 February 2009

Hebrides countdown 2009.....part 2

Wow - just six weeks to go now - we need to start getting ourselves organised!  This weeks's picture is looking back over Loch A Ghoill to the cottage we stay in - doesn't it look small?!  This is the same Loch where we watched otters on the day we arrived last year, and I think this picture really gives a good sense of how remote the cottage is. Although small it has a surprising amount of room inside - it sleeps four comfortably enough although we've not put that to the test yet! The main bedroom is a good size, as is the kitchen. The front room is comfortable enough, but definitely cosy! The second bedroom is quite small but we purely use this for storage so it doesn't worry us, and the bathroom is just fine containing, as it does, everything you need!  

A "normal" day when we are there starts with me getting up when I wake up - but usually for the first week about 7.30am, and a little later as the body-clock adjusts in week two. I throw trousers and a fleece on, and it's into the kitchen to switch on the kettle and see if there is anything interesting swimming around on the loch. If there are birds about I'll pop straight out then with their food too. Once the tea is made then it's to the hall cupboard for the Tippy and other fire-making supplies, and clear out the ash and re-set the fire ready for the evening - this is a job that gets quicker with practise - first morning I always panic a bit thinking I've forgotten how to do a fail-safe-certain-to-light fire but once you start it's easy enough. Ben usually meanders through shortly after I've finished - immaculate timing! Breakfast is sometimes just toast and marmite or preserves, on other days maybe scrambled free range eggs or a fry-up depending on how we feel, but always sat at the table looking out over the loch...... We buy our food on arrival - people who take food with them to self catering places should be shot and then strung up as an example to others - these places rely so heavily on tourism in a lot of cases and it's only right that if you are going there to enjoy the scenery, views etc, then you should aim to put something back too. And there endeth the lesson.....! 

Sunday 15 February 2009

Marmalade magic...part 1

'Tis the time of year for marmalade making... well, it was when these shots were taken anyway!  Here are our lovely seville oranges cut up ready for juicing.... they are REALLY bitter at this stage - no wonder marmalade takes quite a lot of sugar! we made two batches - the second of which was the better we feel as it made a firmer set and also a more "old english" flavour. 

Juicing complete, it was time to scrape out the shells then finely shred the peel - that was surprisingly hard work as there was quite a lot to be shredded! The peel goes into the pan with the juice and quite a lot of water - plus a muslin bag which contains the pith and pips, all of which contain lots of the all-important pectin to make the marmalade set. The whole lot get simmered for 2 hours after which the peel should be tender (but still bitter - as I discovered when I had a lip-puckering taste!)

Part two to follow........

Thursday 12 February 2009

Hebrides Countdown 2009 - part 1

I've done it again haven't I?! Promised faithfully to pay more attention to updating this and then forgotten about it almost instantly and neglected it again. (Attention span of a forgetful goldfish you see!)

Well it's that time of year again, and as I hardly posted anything from last year's holiday it seems like a good time to correct that......

This shot was taken on Berneray - home of the writer of the Silversprite Blog that I follow. Although a small island it has a lovely atmosphere and lots of interesting things to see too - there is a lovely walk around the island which we did on the first Sunday we were over last year - we came across a wreck on the shore at Borve, and spent a fair bit of time wandering around it and photographing the bits that took our usual my love of texture and contrast came to the fore!