Farne Islands, Northumberland

This year is the year of doing all those things that I keep saying I’ll do … and seeing Puffins was on my “list of things to do”. So when some friends decided to drive up to the Farne Islands to see Puffins in June, I signed up straight away!

We booked into a pub guesthouse in Seahouses for three nights, and reserved all day places with the Billy Shiels boat company, who are an established family company with a great reputation.

We headed out on the first day, but sadly due to the weather the high swell on Staple Island, the boats were unable to land, so instead of a full day trip, we ended up on a boat tour in the morning, where we circled the series of islands called the Farne Islands. They are made up of many small islands, the two main islands being Inner Farne, and Staple. They are home to many thousands of nesting birds in May June time, including kittiwakes, guillemots, puffins, black headed gulls, oyster catchers, shags and cormorants.

From the sea, it was amazing to see the cliffs full of life

The birds all share the same space. Share the same food sources. Share the same airspace.

The boat tour was very informative, explaining the islands, the National Trust involvement, and the birds that come to nest there. Explanations of how to recognise the different birds were very helpful to those who were new to the bird spotting hobby! There was even some story telling of when Grace Darling and her father set out to rescue the survivors of a wrecked paddle-steamer, the Forfarshire, when it ran aground on a nearby islet in 1838. It was an informative, and fun boat trip.

Having spent the morning on the boat, we headed back to land for lunch, and then went out in the afternoon to the Island known as “Inner Farne”.

We landed, and the Island was pretty big. It has a beautiful white lighthouse on one cliff, and is covered with an easy access boardwalk, that leads you around the island, protecting as many of the birds as possible by roping off the main nesting areas.

Inner Farne has 100,000s of birds nesting, including terns, who nest on or very close to the boardwalk. We were told to cover our heads where possible as the terns get very aggressive protecting their nests. And that’s an understatement! Even with hats / hoodies on, they would fly up and then peck as many heads as they could find! I left with a couple of bloody patches where my hoodie didn’t quite cover my head!

Walking around was straight forward – the island is covered with a boardwalk so it is very easy to understand where we had to avoid. Once we’d taken our heads in our hands so to speak, and walked along past the terns, we were amazed at just how many puffins were there on the island. They had taken over the old rabbit warrens as nesting areas, and would appear and disappear as they brought in food to their nests.

We spent a couple of hours on the island, which was great fun. Watching the puffins were brilliant fun. The shot above really makes me think of a man, walking along with his hands behind his back. He should be whistling!

There were many birds in the their nests, hiding from the cameras!

There were not only puffins and terns on the islands.There were many shags, most of whom had at least a couple of chicks. The shot below shows a mother feeding one of her chicks.

In addition to the shags, there were also a large quantity of kittiwakes. These look like your average gull – but you can tell them apart because if you listen to their cries, it sounds as though they are shouting their name.

We were also lucky enough to see seals that also inhabit some of the Farne Islands.

The second day, we headed out for our second attempt to land on Staple, and this time succeeded. It is a very different island, with a much more barren landscape. It’s smaller, and is mostly rocky, with more open spaces to explore. The puffin nests here have been created by the puffins – whereas on Inner Farne they have taken over old rabbit warrens.

Watching the puffins was really good fun. I sat for quite a while watching one cute chap walk backwards and forwards in front of me, and I was thinking that he was a real poser. He must have walked up and down looking at me about four or five times. Then I realised what he was doing. He was checking to see if there was enough space to run past me in order to take off to go fishing. And as soon as he had built up the confidence, that’s exactly what he did … ran past me to launch himself into the air to go fishing for sand eels!

Watching the puffins come in to land with their sand eels was also amusing at times. They’d sometimes circle, to make sure they weren’t about to get mugged by the black headed gulls, who would chase them and steal their sandeels. Then, when they decided their route was safe, it was like watching an airplane coming into land – “flaps down”… “brakes on” .. and this was the result

Hilarious.

There are other birds on Staple Islands of course! There are more shags, including lots of babies learning the ropes!

And guillemots

And we even saw an Oyster Catcher too which was exciting

But, I always went back to photographing puffins! And with good reason.

If you were wanting to see Puffins, I can whole heartedly recommend the Farne Islands. It’s a very easy trip if you stay in Seahouses, and you can spend a couple of days visiting the islands, then there is Holy Island up the coast a short ways, which is fascinating as you have to drive across a causeway – and therefore can only visit at low tide.

If you like castles, there are plenty of those around the area as well, and plenty of places to see Hadrian’s wall.

Seahouses is a small town with a beautiful harbour, stunning cliff walks and gives you access to some fantastic bird life. Worth a visit.

You can see more photos here http://www.flickr.com/photos/clare_forster/sets/72157627071825216/

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Svalbard in June, the land of the midnight sun

As I was celebrating a fairly significant birthday this year, one of my very good friends set about planning a birthday surprise for me. All I knew was that we were leaving the boys behind, and going on a girls weekend away, I didn’t know where, I just knew I had to take a couple of days off work! So, it was a great surprise and hugely exciting to find out that we were headed for Svalbard.

For those who are unfamiliar with the location, it’s a series of Islands in the Arctic Circle. They’re part of Norway and lie 78 degrees North above Norway. The island we were headed for is called Spitsbergen, and the town is Longyearbyen. To fly there from the UK, you go via Oslo, with a short stopover in Tromso.

We arrived Saturday evening around 8pm, and it was bright daylight.  I loved that the first thing you saw on leaving the airport was a signpost with many key cities, and their distance from us. Of course, even better is the warning triangle sign against Polar Bears!

We had booked a couple of boat trips in advance, and planned to book the rest when we arrived.

On our first day, we headed out on a big trawler boat called Langoysund, and visited the Nordenskiold Glacier. We could see it from some distance away, and it was only as we got closer that the majestic and sheer size became clear.

We sailed as close as we could towards it, but it had only been a month since the ice had begun breaking up, and so there was still a considerable distance that was solid ice before the glacier. So, once we got as close as we could, we settled “stuck” in the ice and barbequed on the boat! Whilst we were there enjoying lunch, we saw many birds … including these gillemots.

There were even seals on the ice (you have to look very hard, but check out the black dot on the ice in front of the glacier)

What was most fascinating was that when the sun came out from behind the clouds, the glacier turned bright white, but when there was no direct sunlight on it, the glacier was the most exquisite blue, and photographs do not really do it justice.

After our lunch we went on to visit an abandoned Russian mining town. Until 1998 the Russians had mined coal in Svalbard. Pyramiden was abandoned, although now has a couple of people living there in the winter, and a handful more in the summer. It is very eerie to walk around a large town without anyone really living there beside the noisy kittiwakes! We had to visit with a guide, who had to be armed, because even though the last sighting of a polar bear was over a month previously, there is always a risk that a young male polar bear may wander through the area!

So we walked around a ghost town, that features the “most northern” swimming pool, the “most northern” kindergarten, the “most northern” hospital etc. We walked around the sports hall, where everything had just been left abandoned.

It was a fascinating visit to a town that was without inhabitants.

On our second day we headed out on a rib, fully suited in waterproofs provided by the boat company. We sped out across the water to see a second glacier called the Van Postbreen glacier.Like the first glacier, it was at it’s most impressive when the sun was hidden behind the clouds.

It wasn’t just fun in boats over the weekend … we also went on a dog sled, pulled by 10 dogs,

It was a fun filled, jam packed three nights away … and an absolutely fascinating place to visit. Shops have sign posts outside asking people to leave their guns in the locker. Hotels have shoe racks where you are expected to leave your shoes so that you don’t scuff up the beautiful wooden floors. You walk around at midnight, and your brain tells you it’s midday (your body knows the truth however!).I’d definitely recommend you visit if you can. Next time I am going in Winter!!

 

More photos are available on flickr, found here

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British Superbikes 2011

On Friday I went to Brands Hatch for the first time ever. I blame my mate Sam, who’d talked about going to see the Superbikes, but then had to work. Thing is, he’d sold it to me too well, and although he couldn’t make it, I had to go anyway!

I like to constantly challenge my photography … and taking pictures of bikes is not something I have tried beforel So I took a bag of goodies, got some advice from friends on where I should stand … and headed off to Brands Hatch.

The first thing that hit me, as soon as I got out of the car, was the noise. The races had started already, and I could hear the bikes all the way from the carpark. It was spine-tingling goose-bumping noise … and I was still quite some distance from the track. I started to smile … and I pretty much had a smile on my face for the rest of my time at Brands Hatch!

I found my way to Druid’s corner, as had been suggested to me, and headed over the bridge. I could look across the track to the stands, and see plenty of the track. The racing had already started although it was just the practice races before the main 3-day meet from Saturday. I just stood for a while … letting the noise sink in … and enjoying the racing around me.

I found my way over the bridge to the centre of the Druids corner, so that I could photograph with as few barriers and nets as possible. I spent quite a lot of time there, taking shots as the riders approached the corner, and came round safely the other side.

After a while, the heat was quite overwhelming so I decided to take a wander around the track and see what other angles I could find.

First I found a spot looking at the Druids bend, and it was a perfect spot to take the riders leaning right over as they took the bend …

The shot above shows Jenny Tinmouth – the only female rider on the circuit who got signed by Splitlath Motorsport this year, and is competing in the British Superbikes for the first time. I was obviously drawn to taking pictures of her as she went round the circuit … and loved watching her keep up with her fellow riders.

Other than Jenny, I watched the other bikes with as much fascination, being my first proper bike racing event. The noise continued to raise the goosebumps .. and watching the degree to which the bikes leaned was simply jaw-dropping at times. I enjoyed walking around the track, seeing the various bends and straights, but I was always pulled back towards Druids corner for most of my shots.

I really did enjoy the day at the Superbikes, and will definitely go again. I was shooting with my 5DmkII and my 50D with the 100-400 lens, and my 24-105. Next time, I will go for a faster lens as the shots weren’t sharp enough for my satisfaction. However, as a first attempt, I can only say I had a fantastic day out – and want to go again!

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RHS Wisley Butterfly House

For the months of January and February 2011, RHS Wisley has transformed one of its greenhouses into a butterfly house. It is filled with many interesting plants and orchids, with the temperatures set nice and high, and misty water spraying from the roof watering system. It is filled with different species of butterflies, and has attracted many visitors who otherwise would not frequent the gardens at this time of year.

I went on Sunday morning for a couple of hours, until the temperatures overwhelmed me, and the toggers with tripods frustrated me! But don’t let that put you off. There are many wonders to see. The area itself is not particularly large, but there is an upper and lower walkway, with several “feeding” stations where the staff put out fruit to attract the butterflies to land and be observed!

The butterflies themselves range from small glasswings

To the beautiful Blue Morpho

There were a few Tree Nymphs cleverly camouflaged into the plants

There were some that I’ve yet to put a name to

I think my favourite though was the blue Morpho. When its wings are open it looks a beautiful sapphire coloured butterfly, but when it closes up its wings, it appears to be boring brown, with many eyes in its wing patterns. I managed to get up close to the one below and it is possible to see his tongue curled up.

One of my favourite shots is below where the blue is just visible in the opening between his wings.

When seen from behind, you get a real feeling of how these butterflies camouflage themselves, with their wings looking like the edges of dried leaves.

There are many other butterflies in the greenhouse and I’d recommend a visit if you are in the area this month. It doesn’t take long to walk around, but there is no stopping you from walking up and over and starting all over again. The only thing that will eventually persuade you to leave the greenhouse is the tropical heat, and maybe the number of people there, depending on the time of your visit.

For more information, take a look at http://www.rhs.org.uk/wisley

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Lunchtime strolling

I have the usual “New Year Head” on at the moment … which shouts things like “EAT LESS” … “EXERCISE MORE” … “DRINK LESS” … “EAT BETTER THINGS” at me on a fairly regular basis. I have taken some of that to heart and am making my own lunches at the moment. That way I don’t have to enter a supermarket at lunchtime when I am desperately hungry, resulting in a basket containing not only a sandwich or salad, but a dessert, a bag of crisps, a fizzy drink and sometimes even a bar of chocolate … I KNOW I could do without them, but sometimes my hunger head overrules logic! By bringing in my own lunch I take away the requirement for will power. Of which I have none.

Today, with the sun shining, I decided I’d try to listen to another shout from my “New Year Head” and get out of the office for a walk. Richmond is a wonderful place to work – about 5 mins up the road in a car is the Park of course, but about 10 mins walk from the office is the Thames. And that is my usual walking space.

Today was beautiful … the sky was blue with a bit of white cloudyness for contrast.

There were lots of people out walking, enjoying the break in the rainy weather. I was fascinated to see how much higher the water line was. All the boats that usually flounder were floating proud … ready to set off for a jaunt up the river.

There was lots of work going on along side the river, making boat repairs in preparation for better weather later in the year.

Other boats are still safely stored on land, covered up, awaiting the spring weather before making an appearance.

People were out in force, enjoying the sunny weather and taking a break from their usual lunchtime boredom.  Some were feeding the happy geese and gulls

Others were enjoying a quiet break from walking, and soaking up the wintery rays of sunshine.

This last shot shows how high the water is. Usually, this area has a slope that goes down about 5 feet to the water, for boats to “slip” into the Thames .. however at the moment the Thames is level with the walkway!

It was a lovely walk – having my camera with me means I’m more motivated to get out and explore … so grab your camera, and get outside. Whilst this blue sky lasts. Enjoy.

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Dance Classes

Over the last few years I have increasingly become obsessed with Strictly Come Dancing – the BBC show where a group of celebrities get paired with professional dancers, and have to learn a full set of ballroom and latin dances over a number of weeks. As the competition heads towards the final, the celebrities end up learning 2 sometimes 3 new dances a week. It always amazes me how well some of them do at this. Ok – so a few of them come from a stage school background and therefore should have a level of understanding about picking up routines and dance moves, but many have no background training at all, and they still go on to dance with amazing skill.

Every time I watch the dancing, in fact any professional dancing, I think back to when I took regular ballet and modern classes when I was growing up. I still remember passing my first ballet exam and being rewarded with a copy of the (original) BandAid single. I remember the dance studio I went to twice a week … the teachers I had … even the old pianist who would hammer out a tune for us to dance to from the old upright piano in the top left hand corner of the studio! And it’s always with a fairly heavy feeling of regret that I also remember taking the decision to stop dancing as I was starting to study for my A levels, and decided something had to give.

Still .. life goes on .. and I still love watching all kinds of dance .. but this last Strictly season I decided not to sit on the sidelines any longer, and I joined a dance class. It was advertised as a beginner’s class, and luckily I didn’t need to whip up a partner because the advert said “single ladies welcome”. What about single men? Could they get some of those along too so that us “single ladies” could have someone to dance with? To all you single men out there – get yourselves to a dance class! You’ll be fought over and have your pick of who to dance with each week!! I confess I do love a man who can dance! Anyhow I digress!

Where was I? Oh yes, I joined a dance class.  The first class was a bit nerve-wracking – going along on my own, not knowing anyone, and unsure of whether I should arrive in complete ballroom dress or not! But the teachers were very welcoming, and I was soon learning my first Social Foxtrot steps, and even the odd Cha-cha-cha step too. For any Strictly lovers out there, I can’t say the name of that last dance without hearing Craig’s voice in my head saying “Cha- cha-chaaaaaaaaaaa dahhhling” …!

The course ran for 7 weeks before Christmas, and I learned basic steps for not only the Social Foxtrot (called social as it is designed for the Tea Dance type situation where you need to be able to go round and round the floor with your partner) and the Cha-cha-cha, but also some steps for the Rumba, Quickstep, Salsa and Waltz. Admittedly, it would be a bit of a boring dance if I was to actually DANCE to a piece of music with a partner, as for each dance I know about 6 steps – but you’ve got to start somewhere!

Last night was our first class back for the new term. I’d bought myself some “proper” shoes from the local Dance Shop and so was really looking forward to getting back into some dancing. We began by reminding ourselves of the steps for the Foxtrot and cha-cha-cha .. but then the excitement really kicked in, as we started to learn the TANGO! I can now do 6 steps of the Tango. I know it’s not much, but believe me, when the music starts … and you’re in hold (which by the way is EXTREMELY tiring) it’s an amazing feeling! Such an emotional dance. The music they used last night was the Moulin Rouge version of “Roxanne” … which is still buzzing around my head this morning.

I have no idea what other dances we’ll cover off this term – but I urge any of you – if you have ever wanted to learn to dance, find a local club and go along. What I love about the class I have joined is that there is a set term, and you get a feeling of progression. Other clubs I looked at invited you to join at any time – which would imply that you might get beginners interrupting a more advanced class at any time. Sign up to a course, where there’s a definite beginning, and go have fun. Not only is dancing a great form of exercise, but it’s very social. I have made several new friends who live in my area that I wouldn’t otherwise have come across. It gives me a feeling of getting involved in the local community, and of course I look forward to it each week. Needless to say … next time there’s a dance, I’m gonna be able to dance around the room with some semblance of knowing what I am doing! I might not be headed for “Strictly Come Dancing” quite yet, but I am on my way … with the goal in sight!

Go on, get out there, start dancing. And Enjoy.

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Alone at Christmas

For 33 years, Eastbourne Rotary have run an event called “Alone at Christmas” where they host around 100 people for a Christmas Lunch who have nowhere else to go. My father was a great supporter of this event, and for many years as I grew up, I remember sitting in a mini bus with him, helping him collect the people who otherwise would have spent Christmas Day alone.

I remember when he was President of Rotary, and the whole family worked hard on Christmas Day as is expected from the President and his family. We were there all day, welcoming people, putting on some entertainment, and then sending them home with a small gift and a big smile on their faces.

Then for years after, as I got older, Dad and I would just drive people to the lunch, so that our Christmas Lunch could have the usual glass or so of champagne, and we knew we didn’t have to go anywhere afterwards to drop people home. There were others who would volunteer to drive after lunch – people offering whatever time that they had spare.

This year was the second Christmas without Dad and I wanted to do something in his memory so I offered to do some driving for “Alone at Christmas”. I was given control of a what they called a mini bus (not sure there was anything mini about it!) and a list of 6 people to collect. I rang around on Christmas Eve to let everyone know who I was, and what time I would be there to collect them. One man cancelled – he’d had an invitation elsewhere. So I was down to 5.

I persuaded my big sister to come with me to help me, as an extra pair of hands helping was much appreciated.

This is me driving the mini bus – complete with Santa hat!

I drove around and with my sister we picked up our passengers, and took them to the designated Church Hall to be met by a group of volunteers who welcomed them and helped them to tables, with crackers, wine and of course a full blown Christmas Lunch prepared by Eastbourne District General Hospital for the event. Roast Turkey, stuffing, parsnips, potatoes, sprouts, carrots, and gravy were hurriedly consumed! There was a buzz in the hall, both from the participants and the volunteers. There is a sense of “doing good” that seems to increase the Christmas feeling.

Mum came and joined us there, and got stuck in with the washing up. The hall had no dishwasher, so instead, there was a team of ladies all armed with their rubber gloves who washed every plate, spoon and glass … for the 100 participants and 20-something volunteers!

We had a quick break to pop home, grab a sandwich, let the dog out, then we headed back down to continue helping out. Before long, I was back in the minibus taking home my folk, all with smiles on their faces, and being very grateful for their day out.

It wasn’t much – but I felt that I had done something my Dad would have wanted me to do. He was a very active participant in Rotary events, especially where helping others was concerned, and part of me hopes that they miss his involvement, enthusiasm and ideas. I wanted to give my time as that’s very easy to do, and I was very happy to have my Christmas Day the following day, when my other sister and her family could join us. She has three kids, so Christmas seems much more exciting when they’re around.

I have already offered my help next year … it’s such a small thing, but I know it’s what Dad would have wanted me to do. Next is to find other things I can do during the year. I have a lot to live up to, but if I can do a little bit of what Dad used to do, I reckon he’ll be looking down with a smile on his face! Here’s to you Pa.

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Wonderful Wonderful Copenhagen

This weekend, I went to Copenhagen. A girl friend of mine wanted to go to a European Christmas Market, and so with my new moto of “life is too short, so get on and say yes to things” I decided it would be a great way to get into the Christmas spirit, and have a weekend away too. We looked into a few locations, and finally decided Copenhagen looked a good option as the price was reasonable, and a friend recommended a hotel and some restaurants, so we were decided! Shopping (I mean touring) here we come!

I have been to Copenhagen before, on business, and seen the airport, hotel, office, hotel, office and airport. So it seemed a good chance to go and have an explore around the beautiful City of Copenhagen. It’s so easy to get there – a short 2 hour flight – and then jump on the metro which is very simple to figure out. You can get a train so easily in to the City from the airport, and in less than an hour from touching down on the runway, we were at our hotel dropping off our bags ready to go exploring!

First on the agenda was a boat trip to get a view of Copenhagen from the water. Why we thought this was a good idea in temperatures of -3 I have no idea! But it was fun until our teeth started chattering!! We went along some of the canals and out into the river. We saw Nyhavn with it’s Christmassy decorations and little stalls.

We then headed along towards Christianshavn which is a popular residential area – according to our tour guide this is mainly because the King said that if people moved there, they wouldn’t need to pay income tax for 12 years!

After that, there was the main attraction … the little Mermaid, who has just returned from a trip to Shanghai. She’s very clever to get there and back I can tell you! Over her history, she has lost 2 arms and a head. But luckily for us, she was in one piece on the weekend!

Getting the traditional shot was challenging as EVERYONE wanted their photo in front of her.

After that, we headed back along the canals, and once we’d got off the boat, we headed for a traditional warming drink of Glogg … which is along similar lines to Mulled wine, Vin Chaud, and Gluvein depending on which flavour of European you are used to!

Next on the whistle-stop tour was the Tivoli Gardens Christmas Market. All the reviews were positive and gushing, and my expectations were so high! Everyone at the hotel told us we’d need at least a day there, and we were very excited to visit. Maybe that was my problem. My expectations were already set. It was NOTHING like I imagined! I had thought there’d be plenty of craft type stalls selling little presents ideal as stocking fillas. If I’d been in the market for a hat, or a pair of gloves, I would have had so much choice I’d probably still be weighing up the options even now. However, as I was expecting a “Winter Wonderland” of stalls selling many different craft items, including jewellery, decorations, gifts, and edibles, and as a result was pretty disappointed.

However, not letting a simple thing like NO SHOPPING disappoint me too long, we cracked on with our second pleasure … eating and drinking! Our late lunch was a very large pancake filled with roasted veg, cheese and salad! Then after a bit of a walk around we tried a waffle … and finally before we left the park, we had a hot chocolate (wait for it) DANISH pastry … which we both decided was the highlight of our trip!!

We also enjoyed the challenge of taking some lovely night shots of the park as the lights came into force, and that helped us get into the Christmas spirit (well, the glogg definitely helped too)

There are other interesting things in the park, including some people creating ice sculptures!

If you are expecting a European “Christmas Market” … then this isn’t the place for you! It’s a lovely City to explore and I’d fully recommend it – just don’t expect to sort out all your Christmas shopping here!

Still, not to be put off, and having Sunday to fill as well, we opted to take a bus tour to see more of the City. We went past the Royal Palaces (yes, in the plural – there are 4 in a square), out to see the Mermaid again, and around the main parts of the City. It was a good tour, and happily it dropped us off back at Nyhavn, our new favourite destination in Copenhagen! Here were a handful of what we considered to be Christmas Stalls, and we were able to do a little bit of the shopping we had dreamed of!

This is an area that is quite touristy, with stalls, and restaurants in abundance. Each restaurant maintains an outside area even in the -7 degrees as was on Sunday, but they kindly provide blankets for people to sit underneath!

It’s a very pretty part of town, with lovely boats moored up, and very colourful buildings lining either side of the canal.

Before we knew it, our time had come to an end, and it was time to jump on the train for our short trip back to the airport. A fun, chilly and exhausting weekend, but definitely something I’d recommend to others!

God Jul everyone … Happy Christmas.

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Stranded in the snow

I love snow. Whenever I hear the forecaster announce we’ve got snow on the way, it brings to mind images of blue skies, pretty snow everywhere, and a great opportunity to get my camera out to try to capture next year’s Christmas Card photo. It puts me in the mind of ski holidays when I get to spend quality time with good friends, throwing myself down mountains with only two piece of wood under my feet! It’s a happy time when I think of snow.

But Tuesday night wasn’t a fun night thanks to the snow …! I had jokingly asked my boss the previous day what the procedures were if I got snowed in. I really didn’t expect we would – but it’s always best to be prepared. However, not expecting it to happen, I didn’t take the laptop home, or anything else I needed, as the snow wasn’t going to be THAT bad was it!!!That meant, when snow had indeed arrived on Tuesday morning, I had to venture into work in order to pick up the laptop and other things I needed if the snow got any worse.

So, I arrived at Reigate station on Tuesday morning, as the snow was falling, to be faced with a very busy platform, and virtually no indication of what was going on. The electronic board just said delays. Everything was delayed. No announcements came over the tannoy, there were no guards to be seen, and the ticket office man just said he was “waiting to be told”.  Some of us figured out that there was a broken down train between Redhill and Reigate when a Reading train was told it could go no further towards Gatwick, and had to reverse from Reigate back to Reading!

I decided to join that train, as it went via Dorking, and I knew from snow earlier this year that I could get up to London from there. However, no one could tell me if I could use my train ticket – or whether Dorking trains were running ok! But I figured it was worth the risk. Dorking were indeed letting people through the ticket barriers, and I got up to Clapham Junction, and over to Richmond a mere two and a half hours after I left home. Usually I take around 65 mins!

As the weather in Richmond was wet most of the day, I kept an eye on the Reigate weather. It was snowing hard by all accounts. I decided about 4pm to take an earlier train home – better to get home and wonder why you worried, than spend hours on the journey. Or so I thought.

I went from Richmond to Clapham with no issues at all. I felt a little foolish worrying, because the station wasn’t too busy and things seemed to be moving well. That was until I got to my platform. There were people about 8 deep on the platform, and at 16.50 the next train advertised to arrive at the platform should have passed through at 15.30 … oh dear! Delays were inevitable heading south – but delays of over an hour? A train arrived, not going anywhere near where I needed, so I let the crowds push around me in order to get onto the train. I was then about 3 deep from the front the platform. Progress I thought! And being in the midst of the crowd of people made me think about the penguins … the ones in the middle stayed nice and warm whilst the ones on the outside took the brunt of the bad weather. 3 deep was looking a good position to be in!

After being on the station for a further half hour, some people in front of me decided to call things quit. They’d been hoping to get to a business meeting, but had been waiting for over an hour, and finally decided they’d never make it in time – and even if they did – would they then make it back home. So, they moved out of the queue – and suddenly I was at the front! But that’s the cold position!! But, at least I was at the front IF another train ever arrived! I was there for about another half hour, before the next train arrived that was thankfully going in the right direction – it would stop at East Croydon, and then head down to Coulsdon South, Merstam and Redhill – then onto other stations to Three Bridges. Perfect I thought! Even if I had to walk from Redhill, I would at least get home fairly easily. By this stage I had left work about an hour and half ago!

Being that I take the train every day from Clapham, my front row position also coincided with where the doors opened … so I scuttled on and jumped into a seat. Horrah! I was on a train heading South and I had a seat! I was feeling smug!

As we set off, the train driver came over the tannoy. Victoria Train Control had told him he could only go as far as East Croydon – but as he wanted to get back to Brighton to his family, he was going to see how far we could get before giving up! We all cheered at our brave train driver for such dedication!! First stop East Croydon, all was well. We sat there for a while, then got the all clear to continue South. The driver announced that Coulsdon South, Merstam and Redhill were still all on the itinerary … so everyone settled down quite happily. We’d been travelling along for about 10 mins when  someone commented that we weren’t on the Coulsdon Line. What did she mean, everyone wanted to know. She said again, that we weren’t on the right line – we’d come onto a different line. We got increasingly anxious – nothing from the driver or guard, and no way to get in touch with them. We’d been going for at least 10 more mins before the guard came on the tannoy to apologise for having to skip the intended stations, but due to two broken down trains in the Redhill area, they’d had to move onto the fast line which didn’t stop at those stations. Suddenly my smugness at having a seat AND getting a train to Redhill evaporated. We hadn’t stopped. We’d kept going. Where were we headed?

The next stop was going to be Horley then Gatwick. I decided I’d stay on the train till Gatwick – after all, it’d be warm there if I had to wait for a train going north. So I settled back feeling less panicky. As we drew into Horley the driver again apologised for not stopping as intended and said we could change either at Horley or Gatwick for a train taking us back North. People were calling out saying there was a train now heading North … so along with about 150 others, I jumped out and ran across to the other platform. But, there were no trains. The boards were no use at all just saying all trains were delayed … there were no extra guards informing us what was going on, or when we could expect a north bound train. Everyone was getting onto their mobile phones, telling friends and family they were stuck in Horley. Thing was, my phone was nearly out of battery. And who could I call anyhow? I didn’t want anyone to come out in this weather as the driving conditions were getting very dangerous. By this time, I had left work 3 hours previously.

I stood on the platform, and got very scared. It was below freezing, there were no trains going in either direction, and I wasn’t sure how many hours it would take me to walk home even if I could figure out which direction home was. My phone was down to its last bar of battery, and I wasn’t really dressed for a couple of hours walking in the snow. What made it worse was that there weren’t people at the station able to help us – no one knew what was happening, and although I tried to hold on to the thought that I was there with probably 50 others (the rest appeared to have been quite happy with the Horley destination) I was still getting scared when thinking about how on earth I was going to get home.

I sent a text to my housemate, asking her to phone our cab company to find out how long till they had a car that could come and get me. In the meantime, I checked my phone, quickly looked on Facebook to see how others were fairing in their attempts to get home, and updated my status with “Stuck in Horley”. I know not everyone has a good view of facebook – but I tell you, I am glad I updated my status with such seemingly trivial information because within a few minutes, a great mate of mine phoned, and said he was getting into his car and coming to get me! I tried to dissuade him from coming out, as it was snowing hard again, and the roads were treacherous. But he was my hero, saying that you don’t leave people stranded, and he’d driven in the snow already that day, and would come out to get me.

I could have cried. In fact, thinking about it even now, I feel tears of relief well in my eyes … I hadn’t realised until that moment quite how scared I’d become. Within about 20 mins, he’d pulled up outside the station, and I was in a warm car, heading home. Apart from a couple of slippery patches (where he teased me for being a nervous passenger) we managed to slide to a stop outside my front door. I really did nearly cry! I’d been well and truly rescued … I don’t remember the last time I was unable to do something on my own … but here I was, having been rescued due to being a damsel in absolute distress.

I walked in my door about 4 hours after I left the office, and am still very thankful to both my mate (those who know me, know who you are) and his wife for letting him go out!!! I know I would do pretty much anything for my mates, but I’m not sure you’d get me driving in the snow! Then again, if a mate was in trouble, I’d probably would give it a go. But seriously mate. Thank you. I know you don’t think it’s any big deal. But thank you for rescuing a damsel in distress. Needless to say, I have been working from home since, and am unlikely to attempt the journey into work until it can be guaranteed that trains are running again!

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Starling Murmurations

I took a day off on Friday to head to the Coast for a family event, and took a chance of visiting Eastbourne Pier about half an hour before sunset to see if the Starlings were back in town for winter! There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the pier was lit in the most beautiful golden light.

As the sun got lower and lower, I thought I was going to be disappointed. I hadn’t seen any flock of birds. Then – as sunset got closer, I noticed a few birds beginning to fly around … probably only about 50 birds. Then I realised there was a second much larger flock approaching the first, this one in the thousands. They joined forces, and performed their amazing dance – so many birds altogether.

They flew around, sometimes splitting up, sometimes flying all in one flock. Then there appeared to be some hidden signal and suddenly they all started to fly towards the pier. They literally bombarded the dome at the top of the pier – getting the last of the sunshine.

They would settle for a while, then a bunch of them would fly up into the air before returning to catch more of the warmth from the last rays of sunshine

Then there was the normal squabbling as expected from starlings as they found their perches, fighting for the warmest and least windy spots!

The noise was simply amazing – as I walked along the pier, I could hear all the starlings that had already headed under the pier to roost for the night. I took a couple of movie clips which can be watched here http://www.flickr.com/photos/clare_forster/5210310092/

If you haven’t seen the murmurations of starling before, I can whole heartedly recommend it. It’s one of the most amazing sights you will see – and the noise once they have gone to roost is incredible! I had hoped to return on Sunday evening – but the weather wasn’t helping me, and I decided to stay home and keep warm!

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