On the way back from a lovely wedding in Shropshire over the bank holiday weekend, we stopped off at Attingham Park – a National Trust property comprising a big house and a bigger estate. We got there fairly early in the day, and since the house isn't open to the massed hordes until 1pm we snuck on a free tour at 11. This turned out to be an unexpected delight, as the tour was specifically about the usually hidden process of keeping a big old NT house clean throughout the seasons. I didn't realise quite how much careful effort goes in every day just to keep dust at bay, not to mention light, insects and humidity.

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To me the house isn't the star attraction here though (we went back and had a full look once it was properly open). The vast parkland grounds are what make it special, featuring grassland, woodland, deer, rivers and ponds. These are lightly littered with some interesting sculptures, which would be more impressive if they weren't accompanied by ridiculous texts explaining what they represent. I should have burned that leaflet! We almost missed the monopoly hotels on sticks poking out of the water of a pond.

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As we strolled through the bracken there was a section that was literally swarming with large very black and rather lugubrious flies. I've since identified these as St Mark's Flies, which apparently emerge at this time of year – traditionally 25th April (hence the name).

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Down by the river (I'm not sure if it was the Severn or the Tern) there were a couple of Grey Wagtails shooting out over the water for insects.

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26. April 2009 · 2 comments · Categories: Travel
Saw this poster at St Pancras. Oh the irony! Nuff said.

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Some more photos of the range of interesting bird life at Rye Meads. See my previous post for the first instalment. There's still more to come, bit by bit. It took me a while to figure out what all these things were as I'm new to it, so I don't want to swamp my dear readers (both of you) with too much at once.

First, a twofer! That's two for the price of one. At the top a male Gadwall, and at the bottom a Coot collecting lumber for a nest I imagine. I have better pictures of both male and female Gadwalls to come in a later post.

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A Greylag Goose (actually a pair of them) flew overhead and I managed to get a half decent shot.

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This taxed my powers of identification but I'm now certain that it's a female Tufted Duck. Comparing it to the male in my previous post it's quite different, though there is a suggestion of tuftiness still.

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Finally a Pochard, which on the day I was confusing with Shovellers, but on reflection (picture pun intended) it's clearly quite different.

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Bank holiday Monday and it looked like the skies might clear for the first time in the long four day weekend. So off we drove to Rye Meads wildlife reserve near Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire – a slightly strange split between RSPB and Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust. It's also right next to the Rye House go-karting track where Lewis Hamilton apparently learnt his craft, and I've been karting many a time. So I can highly recommend this spot on at least two counts!

Just a very quick report for now: it's a fairly large place with loads of lagoons, ditches, reed beds, ponds etc. and 11 hides from which to look out for interesting things. A couple of notables below (but more to come).

First up, a lone Redshank. It took a bit of leafing through the book of longish billed wadey things to figure this one out.

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Next, a tufted duck – this is a male. The female is all dark and without the obvious tufting on the back of the head.
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An Oystercatcher, with it's very colourful bill. Apologies for the poor sharpness of this photo. It was probably at least 50m away.
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Finally, a Shoveller – a duck with a great big spade like bill. More interesting sights to come…
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First off, a pair of great diving beetles apparently mating. You can really see the difference between the male and the female – having completely different wing cases. These were on the surface of the pond in the Italian garden of The Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall. I've never seen great diving beetles for real before so I was thrilled to see these. They are really quite big.

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In another pond at Heligan, here's what I think is a toad, though it's hard to be sure. I think that the relatively warty skin and chunky build make it more toad-like. The original photo was really low contrast so I've zapped it way up and made it nearly monochrome for a slightly eery effect.
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Finally, a Treecreeper, hopping its way up a tree quite high up and pushing my 400mm lens to its limits (this is a tight crop as it is). I'm disappointed I never got a better angle of it, but it was always moving or somehow obscured. I'm still quite chuffed as this is my first Treecreeper sighting and I was explicitly looking out for them at the time. This was on the RSPB reserve at West Sedgemoor in the woods.
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21. March 2009 · 1 comment · Categories: Travel
I was overjoyed to see the new March 22nd First Capital Connect Thameslink timetable, which seems to have a straight flush of 8 car trains from St Albans into London in the morning rush hour! There are also more 8 car trains coming back out in the evening than there were, but they don't seem to have managed to cover all services.

That would have been it for this post, but my wife told me that she'd had a letter from FCC saying that the new trains required to do this are actually four months late (cue obvious jokes) and so we'll be lucky to actually see this working out in reality. Either that or they will try to manage it with yet more borrowed stock from Southern, but cunningly setup such that the first minor problem wrecks everything through lack of contingency capacity. Brilliant.

I still find it highly amusing that there's all this talk of 12 car trains when they still can't run anything better than 4 car trains for many rush hour services. Let's get to 8 first!

Incidentally, is there an even more disgruntled commuter somewhere in the deep South wondering why they now have 1 car trains, by virtue of all Southern's stock having been sent to FCC? Or did they just have all these trains sat in a shed waiting for their calling?!

One of the things in Cornwall that you have to visit by law is the Eden Project. It's quite pricey to get in (notably more than the Lost Gardens of Heligan for instance) and dare I say that rankled a bit. It's reputation precedes it, so it had a lot to live up to. To be honest it fell a little short, but that might be because we'd been to Heligan just two days before which had set a high bar, and our expectation were a bit unrealistically set from all the media coverage that it gets.

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The two biomes are genuinely impressive and by far the best thing about the place. Set in an old quarry, they are sheltered from the elements and act as enormous greenhouses with the larger set housing a tropical climate and the other a cooler Mediterranean experience. It was a super-sunny day for March and the tropical biome was absolutely scorching. Sweat was dripping down every part of me. It was almost a chore, save for the extraordinary wealth of lush tropicana all around, including waterfalls, streams and millions of tiny ants. A member of staff told me that the ants and all the birdlife weren't really supposed to be there but there wasn't much they could do. I watched a robin catching a grasshopper, and another one eating a large cockroach! With those sorts of goods on offer I'm not surprised they wait to come through the sliding doors with the rest of the visitors.
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Above on the right is a picture of WEEE Man (if I recall correctly) – a huge sculpture made of the electrical waste that the average person throws away in a lifetime. Those teeth are computer mice.
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The Mediterranean biome was probably my favourite bit, as it was a pleasant place to be in absolutely every sense, though not quite as vast and absorbing as the tropics. One building is known as The Core and at the centre of it is a 75 tonne sculpture hewn from a single piece of rock – apparently the largest single stone ever quarried in the UK. It's an egg or pine-cone shaped sculpture with highly geometric qualities that represents a seed pod at the core of the whole endeavour. I kind of liked it, but the building it was in, full of educational stuff, didn't quite seem to gel.
Overall, if you're going to Cornwall you'd be mad not to visit the Eden project, but if it were much busier than it was in mid-March it might be a bit of a struggle. I think I'd recommend people go, but I'd even more strongly recommend they go to the Lost Gardens of Heligan nearby. More on that to come.

I've always struggled to tell the difference between Rook, Crow and Raven, though I've had Jackdaws sorted for years (notably smaller – black cap above more slightly silvery head and neck). To remedy this situation I've really been trying to get to grips with the differences and positively identify large black birds over recent months. Here's what I'm fairly sure is a rook, on a feeder at the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall.

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This is fairly classicly an adult rook by virtue of the grey area around the base of the bill, which itself is long and pointy compared to that of a carrion crow. That said, the head shape seems more typically crow-like to me (less of a crown) and in this example there's no evidence of the 'baggy trousers' that usually distinguishes a rook. As a result I'm left still fairly puzzled, but I'm going with my call that this is a rook. Furthermore, there were lots of them around all together and apparently this is a sign of rookedness.