Tag Archives: Wildlife

The Somerset Levels

The Somerset Levels

It might surprise some people to learn that one of my favourite areas of the West Country is the Somerset Levels – that flat, wet landscape between the Mendip, Blackdown and Quantock Hills which people tend to ignore on their way to somewhere else.

Come to think of it, that’s probably one of the reasons I like it so much, but there’s more to it than that. Metaphorically speaking, the more you dig under its surface, the more you’re likely to discover – not just about the life and history of the Somerset Levels – but more about yourself as well. It’s a land that time has largely passed by and the perfect antidote to today’s modern stressful living: It’s also a land that is full of character and characters, myths & legends and somewhere that is completely at one with nature.

So how have the Somerset Levels and Moors (to give it the proper name) developed into the place it has: The answer is water – or rather, the control of it.

The general height of the land is just 3-4 metres (10-12 ft) above mean sea level, which when you consider that tides in Bridgwater Bay have peaked at over 25 ft, you can imagine what sort of problems can be created if they’re not managed properly.

After the last ice age this landscape was covered by the sea most of the time and punctuated by the odd island here and there: Glastonbury Tor is the most famous, but there are others such as Burrow Mump and Brent Knoll: In the drier months when the water subsided, the fertile grasslands were accessed from these islands on wooden tracks by people to an area the Saxons referred to as Sumorsaete, or “Land of the Summer People”.

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Torridon and Loch Maree

Loch Maree from the Beinn Eighe NNR Trails Car Park

Torridon and Loch Maree

Sandwiched between Loch Torridon and Loch Maree is some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in Scotland.

The Torridon Hills may not make it onto the list of the world’s highest mountains, but it’s worth bearing in mind that they rise up virtually from sea level to over 3,000ft, and as far as I’m concerned that makes them mountains rather than hills.

Overlooking the tiny village of Torridon are three mountains that form the bulk of the high landscape – Beinn Alligin (3,230ft), Liathach (3,456ft), and Beinn Eighe (3,310ft), all of which are a magnet for climbers. Not being a climber myself, I can only imagine what the views must be like for those that are.

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The Applecross Peninsula

The Applecross Peninsula

Situated between the Torridon Hills and the Isle of Raasay, the Applecross Peninsula isn’t the easiest place to get to but getting here is all part of the enjoyment.

As long as you don’t have a large motorhome or caravan, the scenic route will take you over the infamous Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle) from Tornapress near Loch Kishorn to Applecross village. This road, which was built in 1822, climbs over 2,000ft in 5 miles around hairpin bends before descending into the village and is frequently cut off by snow in the winter months, just as it was for us in March 2016.

The alternative option involves taking the coastal route via Shieldaig, which obviously takes longer, but if you had come here before the 1970’s it wouldn’t have even been an option at all, and at least it gives you the opportunity to visit the picturesque village of Shieldaig.

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The Island of Raasay

The Sound of Raasay

The Island of Raasay

According to Wikipedia, Scotland has over 790 offshore islands; Whoever put their head above the parapet to make that claim must have been having sleep problems, but I’ll take their word for it.

Some are small, some are large, some are well-known, and some not so well known – so which islands to visit can also cause a lack of sleep if you let it.

Raasay (meaning Isle of the Roe Deer), is 14 miles long and up to 5 miles wide, which means that it’s not too small and not too big, but it’s not too well-known either. Lying between the Isle of Skye and the Applecross Peninsula, it can be reached by ferry from Sconser on the Isle of Skye and takes around 25 minutes.

For this blog I’m going back in time to 2008 when the ferry landed at East Suisnish, but apart from a new ferry terminal on the other side of the bay, I can’t imagine things would have changed very much.

Skye is an undeniably beautiful island, and looking across the Sound towards Raasay you could be forgiven for thinking that there’s not much point in catching the ferry over to Raasay, which in comparison, doesn’t look anywhere near as inviting as the Cuillins or the Quiraing, but there are reasons why you might want to think again.

Firstly, in recent years Skye has seen a surge in visitor numbers, which if you were coming to the Scottish Islands for an away from it all break, then you might feel a bit cheated if you’ve chosen a busy time to come. Raasay is much more peaceful.

Another reason is that the views from Raasay towards Skye can be quite breathtaking – and of course, there’s the appeal of the island itself.

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The Isle of May

Pilgrim's Haven

The Isle of May

Located in the mouth of the Firth of Forth, about 5 miles and a 45-minute boat ride from Anstruther, is the uninhabited Isle of May. I say uninhabited, but that’s not strictly true because it’s home to a fantastic collection of seabirds.

If you think that this is yet another lovely peaceful Scottish island, you’d be wrong because the first thing that will hit you when you arrive on this 1½ mile long island is the deafening noise made by around 200,000 birds.

Admittedly, it was breeding season when we came, and apart from bringing some ear plugs, I would also recommend wearing a hat, preferably a white one.

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North Berwick

North Berwick

A half-hour train journey from Waverley along the East Lothian coast will bring you to the smashing little seaside town of North Berwick.

The first time I came here I immediately fell in love with it. Little did I know at the time that it was one of the most expensive seaside towns to live in Scotland.

It doesn’t have an outward appearance of wealth or anything like that, in fact it’s quite an unassuming sort of place in many ways.

It doesn’t have much in the way of seaside attractions in the conventional sense, but more in the way of natural attractions. A conical volcanic hill known as North Berwick Law overlooks the town, its beaches and small harbour, but its location overlooking a handful of small islands in the Firth of Forth is what makes it a bit special.

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Scotland’s Solway Coast and the Rhins of Galloway

The Solway Firth

Scotland's Solway Coast and the Rhins of Galloway

Like so many travellers, I’ve often been guilty of rushing past this quiet corner of Scotland in search of the country’s more celebrated attractions further north, but several years ago I decided that it was about time we turned left at the Scottish border to take a steady drive along the Solway Coast to the Rhins of Galloway and find out what we’ve been missing.

From what I can see of it nothing much has changed around here since we visited, but one thing I’d better mention is that we didn’t drive along here all in one day, as the route I’ve described would take at least four hours without stops; and although it might be possible, I wouldn’t recommend it if you want to enjoy the area properly.

Naturally, I wasn’t expecting the same jaw-dropping scenery that the Highlands can offer, but I already knew from experiences elsewhere, that the Lowlands of Scotland have an appeal of their own, but in a much more subtle way.

Immediately after crossing the border into Scotland is Gretna Green, the famous runaway wedding location, where most first-time visitors will want to stop – even if they don’t intend getting spliced. Having been here before, I was keen to move on because I think it’s one of those places that, unless your name’s Henry VIII, you only want to visit once, and so we carried on along the ‘B’ roads towards Caerlaverock instead.

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The Fabulous Farnes

The Fabulous Farnes

I’m sure I’m not the only one, but I absolutely adore islands. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they don’t necessarily have to include coconut palms swaying in a warm tropical breeze over a white sandy beach – which is probably just as well really because the Farne Islands are nothing like that.

There are no palm trees here; in fact, there aren’t any trees at all, and if it weren’t for the wardens who monitor the islands, there would be no humans either.

The only bodies you’ll find lying around in the sun (if it’s out) are Atlantic Seals, who are joined by thousands of sea birds who also call these islands home.

Lying just two miles off the Northumberland coast at its nearest point, the Farnes consist of fifteen islands when the tide’s in, and 28 when it’s not. Separated by the mile-wide Staple Sound, the small archipelago consists of two main groups – the Inner Farnes, and the Outer Farnes, with Crumstone lying east of the main group, and Megstone to the west.

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Looe Island

Looe Island from Hannafore Point

Looe island

Looe Island is just a mile offshore, but the short boat journey from the quayside at East Looe will transport you into what seems like a totally different time and place.

The island is owned and managed by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and access is usually only permitted by using the authorised boat that runs from Buller’s Quay. The boat runs from Easter to September, two to three hours either side of high tide, and of course, weather conditions permitting.

The boat trip costs £7 return per adult and there’s also a landing fee of £4 per adult (July 2018).

 

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Iddesleigh and the War Horse Story

Iddesleigh

Iddesleigh and the War Horse Story

Iddesleigh is one of those delightful little cob and thatch villages that lies hidden amongst the rolling hills of the West Devon countryside.

It’s not somewhere that you just stumble across, and even in this modern age where everywhere is near somewhere, thanks to the ever-increasing ability of motorists to seek out the most obscure places, it still takes a bit of finding – but it’s worth the effort.

The home of less than 200 people, Iddesleigh has a church and a pub but not much else, and were it not for a nearby farm I don’t suppose too many people would bother to seek it out at all.

Between 1830 and 1836 Parsonage Farm was the home of the Reverend ‘Jack’ Russell, the curate of St James’ Church. He was the first breeder of the terriers to which he gave his name, but this isn’t the reason why people come to take a look around the farm. They come here to find out more about another animal – Joey the War Horse.

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Lympstone

Lympstone

Mention Lympstone to anyone, and they automatically think of the Commando Training Centre for the Royal Marines – but this small, attractive village on the River Exe is worth a butchers if you fancy a change of scenery on the journey between Exeter and Exmouth.

If you’re travelling by car it’s just a short detour off of the A376, but you can also travel by train using the single-track Avocet Line, which will give you the option of stopping in The Swan or The Globe for a drink and a bite to eat without worrying about the breathalyser.

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Goodrington

Goodrington from the Coast Path

Goodrington

Goodrington was another village, like Preston, that was swallowed up by Paignton, and covers the coastal area from Roundham Head to Broadsands, but just like its counterpart across the other side of town, has grown inland as well.

It has to be said that there’s not much for the ardent historian to seek out here because Goodrington primarily attracts families who just want to enjoy the beach, park and water flumes. That said, it also manages to juggle the appeal of family fun with some important conservation as well.

As I pointed out in Old Paignton, this used to be a wet, marshy area, and it’s not difficult to see why it was looked upon in years gone by as an area that needed to be tamed, but these days we treat nature with a bit more respect (sometimes) and work with nature rather than against it.

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Topsham

Monmouth Hill

Topsham

Topsham is a village/small town on the eastern bank of the River Exe just 4 miles or so from Exeter’s city centre.

Since 1966 it has officially been part of Exeter, but its distinctive character makes it feel very different from its larger neighbour.

It started out as a Roman settlement and developed as a port which grew in importance following the construction of the weir at Countess Wear. Even with the arrival of the canal in 1566 it still prospered as trade boomed with the Dutch who came for Devon wool.

The Dutch influence can be seen all over Topsham with gable-fronted houses, some of which were built with the bricks that were used as ballast for their ships.

The port is no longer vital to Topsham’s prosperity as it has now become a desirable place to live for people who like to live near the city but not in it.

The River Exe and the surrounding marshes have an abundance of birdlife, and places like Bowling Green Marsh are protected habitats for the large flocks of waders, geese and migratory birds that also make Topsham their home.

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The Exeter Canal

The Exeter Canal

Exeter has a perfectly good river on its doorstep so why was there a need for a canal you may ask. For the answer to that we need to go back to the late 13th century when the Countess of Devon, a member of the Courtenay family, built a weir across the river just upstream from Topsham in order to power her mills on either side of the river.

Up until this point the river was navigable up to the city walls, but the weir made it difficult for boats to reach the city even though the Countess left a gap in the middle of the weir. Worse still, in 1311 her cousin, Hugh de Courtenay, blocked the central section, effectively forcing the ships bound for Exeter to unload at his quay in Topsham.

The Courtenay family were very influential and Henry Courtenay, the 1st Marquis of Exeter, was a close friend of King Henry VIII, which was just asking for trouble if you ask me, and the Marquis unsurprisingly ended up losing his head on Tower Hill in 1539. Falling out of favour with the King meant that all his lands were confiscated and the city of Exeter was eventually granted the right to tear down the weir. Unfortunately, it was all a bit too late as the river had silted up, and to overcome the problem it was decided to build a canal linking Countess Wear (!), as it became known (and still is), to the city.

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