Chirk Aqueduct and Tunnel

A short 2 night break in our campervan saw us in Chirk, just over the border of Wales and not far from Wrexham. The campsite is surrounded by trees, is adjacent to the grounds of the National Trust Chirk Castle estate, and a short and pleasant woodland walk from the Chirk Aqueduct.

The aqueduct spans the valley between Wales and England, with green fields, grazing sheep and the RivP1080886er Ceiriog way below. It carries the Llangollen canal with the railway line, supported on arches, beside it. A stroll across the towpath, taking in the scenery and any passing canal boats along the way,  takes you into England.

Keep walking and you’ll reach a canalside pub; turn back and you’ll re-enter Wales, and on the other side of the aqueduct there is the Chirk Tunnel, it’s dark mouth waiting to swallow the narrowboats into its murky depths.

The tow path continues into the tunnel. It’s possible to walk its 420 metres/460 yards length, but a torch is required along with a fair bit of care as the path is narrow. There is a rail but in these days of social distancing it would be a bit daft to try it. And there is supposed to be a ghost somewhere in there too…..

No, we didn’t do it but we have done walked it with children, and most recently with granddaughter who surprised herself with her bravery. It’s not actually that scary as the tunnel is straight so the end is always in view. Boats have to pace themselves and have a light on while they’re chugging through, so there is sometimes a queue waiting to go enter.

And then, when they emerge from the tunnel on the Welsh side, passengers might catch the enticing aroma of chocolate, drifting from the chocolate factory, hidden behind the trees and on the edge of the town.

The Dee Estuary

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On  recent visit to the Wirral, staying there for a couple of nights in our campervan, we enjoyed walking on the Dee Estuary beaches. Tide out, plenty of space for our dog to run, sniff and explore, and a few birds about too, it was all very pleasant. Across the water from the Wirral side are lower Welsh hills and small towns, such a Flint.

The estuary leaves the boats moored there high and dry, then buoyed up again as the tide comes in. Low tide reveals rocks, mud, pools and the remains of maybe piers? Maybe breakwaters? Maybe the back bone of a buried dinosaur?

The sound of oystercatchers peep-peeping is unmistakable, but I need binoculars to find them as they potter about feeding on the beach. The warbling cry of a nearby curlew draws my attention as it obligingly stands still for a photo.

 

RSPB Deeside is located further up along the coast on the English side, and it’s a good place for birds, as is Parkgate, with its grassy, silted up seashore, promenade and ice cream parlours. Hen Harriers, Marsh Harriers, Short-eared owls, Merlins and Kestrels can be seen here, but patience is required, especially in winter months when it can get very cold taking part in one of the regular Raptor Watch events.

P1080832At the mouth of the estuary is Hilbre Island, which you can get to across the sands at low tide. A tide table is essential for this activity!  Further round the coast on the English side, is Liverpool, and nearby is Crosby Beach with the cast iron bodies of artist Antony Gormley forever looking out to sea, continually being covered then revealed by the rising and ebbing tides.

A day of birds and beasts

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Wetlands and Spanish Moss on trees, Brazos Bend State Park

Following our truncated stay and hasty departure from our visit to family in Houston ( to get back before all planes stopped flying, no other reason!) I’ve finally got around to looking at the photos I took there. So distracting and disorientating is this period of lockdown (what day is it…?) I’d forgotten about our family day out at Brazos Bend State Park and what we’d seen there.

It’s one of our “must go to” places when in Houston, so before our departure we had a family day together and enjoyed a walk around these wetlands. They are alligator- inhabited, a bit of a birder’s paradise, and they always delight us. We’ve seen roseate spoonbills, ibis, blue herons, bitterns catching fish just feet away from us, red-winged blackbirds and alligators basking on the banks.

Trees are festooned with Spanish Moss, noisy American coots hoot and squawk, anhingas (cormorant-like) sit with wings spread in the sunshine and large dark blue butterflies make their presence felt as their wings brush by.

P1080543There’s always something new to see, and this time it was the large brown furry creature in the marshy area, which some of our party thought was a beaver, some thought was a coypu, and some some just didn’t know. It’s taken me a while to get round to the ID job, and I had to check it out and do a spot of research too. It’s a nutria, which I’d not heard of before, but they’re quite common, are similar to beavers and are related to coypu, which are found in Europe. It’s the size and tail which give the answer – large body, rat-like tail. Beaver tails are flattened.

One down, one to go. What was that unusual bird with an orange and black head I saw lurking in the undergrowth? I took a few shots very quickly and managed to get enough for an ID. But what was it? I’d seen something like it before but couldn’t remember where.

P1080546Lockdown days offer more time to browse photographs. This bird looked vaguely familiar, so I tried a long shot and looked at photos I’d taken in Costa Rica, and there it was – a Crested Caracara. I’d seen one there. They’re listed as being seen in Texas, and specifically at Brazos Bend. It was quite  thrill to see this large bird – and not only that, on the way to Brazos by I spotted a male Hen Harrier (called a Northern Harrier in the US) flying low over a field.

This was probably the most significant sighting of the day for me. Hen Harriers are persecuted and endangered in the UK, and although I’ve been fortunate enough to see both male and female of this species on the wing in the UK, they still give me goosebumps on my neck when I do.

York’s Northern Lights

IMG-20191024-WA0002The minster has been cleared. The spectacle is to be viewed standing in the nave, empty of chairs, and used as cathedrals were in the middle ages. Standing space, no seats, just looking up in wonder and awe. The organ roars and vibrates, playing an overture to set the scene. The music and the blue/green lighting creates an anticipatory atmosphere before the show begins.

York Minster’s Northern Lights spectacular is a totally immersive experience of sound, light, voices, music, sound effects and dramatic, apocolyptic, spirit-ful elemental images projected on to the east window and the roof. Its message includes – in graphic flames and thunderbolts – current concerns about climate breakdown. Nature is there: the sound of a sparrow as it flutters across the high ceiling of the nave, flowers bloom and entwine across the vaulted roof; images of stained glass windows form patterns there, and the east window is an ever-changing backdrop of colours and shapes and eras.

I experienced this a few days ago. It’s on for just one week. If you’re in or near York – go and see it!

Valley of the Saints

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On a grey, chilly, windy day in August I visited the Valley of the Saints in northern Brittany. Like a modern-day line up of Easter Island-like giant statues, some of the many religious saints associated with bringing Christianity to Brittany are depicted in stone, sculpted by modern-day artists who are taking part in this developing project.

About 50 saints are already in place, standing proud on a windy hillside with views of the surrounding countryside and the sea. Each one is different and has it’s own story – there is a guidebook outlining the story of each saint, and there are guides too, to tell their stories.

The teenager in our Anglo-French family group took it upon himself to entertain the younger members of the group, making up stories for them about the statues and acting as an alternative guide – his stories were very funny and creative and while the children half-beleived what he was saying, the adults were chuckling a lot. If there was a saint with a sense of humour somewhere on that hillside, he or she would have been proud of our alternative guide and his amusing tales.

The saint with an axe in her head, pictured above, is touching a lion’s head – you can just see it’s teeth. Our alternative guide’s take on this one was that she reminds us to be kind to animals and the environment, otherwise we will come to a nasty end.

I fully concur with that.