Bearded tits have always been a difficult bird for me to photograph – they’re just so quick and I rarely get to see them. There is an aviary at Pensthorpe in Norfolk that houses some bearded tits, which are bred for conservation programmes, and because the reeds are a limited territory within the aviary it’s actually possible to get some photos.
The garden took 15 years to create when the late Lord and his team of gardeners began to restore the house and land after the war. The spectacle is quiet strange; almost current-less waterways cross the garden, and rooms of hydrangeas and camellia merge. There were plenty of ducks and their young, dragonflies and damselflies, and schools of thousands of sticklebacks.
I’d love to know what kind of funghi are these?
The foxgloves were out in force.
An Egyptian goose spotted.
I don’t feel so bad about the green skud on the surface of my pond – the water here is covered in it, you feel like it’s grass.
The fields of wheat.
We were really impressed to find that in the tearoom not only was there vegan cake in the form of a delicious chocolate and marmalade slice, but also there was a sandwich option. It doesn’t take much to add an easy hummus sarnie to your menu but it makes such a difference!
It’s not the most glamorous of ‘national week of…’ events but it is globally important to the conservation of insect species, which are rapidly declining. The celebration was started to “encourage people of all ages to learn about insects”, which is a particularly prescient exercise given the recent evidence from France and Germany that shows a 75% decline in insect species across the countryside within the last 25 years.
A casual flick through the website and I have learnt that while there are over 50 or 60 species of butterflies in the UK, there are a staggering 2000 species of moth! I have also discovered what a firebrat is.
You may not be especially interested in insects – you may even avoid them at all costs – but they are an essential component of any ecosystem because so many animals depend on them for a food source. They are also pollinators so they help plants and flowers to reproduce, which contributes to a healthy and diverse ecosystem. Some insects even break down decaying organisms, returning those nutrients to the environment.
Every May comes the annual trip to the woods at the Blickling estate in Norfolk to see the bluebells, and it never disappoints. Vast carpets of delicate purple flowers lay across the woodland floor and hundreds of people turn up each year to see this spectacle.
In May I visited Scotland for the first time. It was a long train journey from Norfolk to Inverness (total of 10 hours!) so we split it up with a few nights in Edinburgh. We didn’t stay in Inverness but in Nethy Bridge, a small but well-known village in the Abernethy forest in the Cairngorms national park.
Here’s what we got up to!
Visit the Ospreys
The RSPB run the Osprey Centre in Loch Garten and here you can see from the viewing point at this time of year the osprey nest. We saw the female with her eggs sitting on the nest! It would have been great to see the male coming in to feed them but sadly he hadn’t been seen for a few days.
This place is quite special because after being persecuted to extinction in the UK a pair of ospreys returned to this spot 50 years and ospreys have been coming back ever since. There are now around 400 breeding pairs in the UK, most of which reside in Scotland so it’s a rare conservation success story. You can watch a live nest cam here.
Dolphin Spotting on the Moray Firth
We took a boat trip into the Moray Firth in Inverness and hoped to see dolphins. Wildlife watching being the unpredictable activity it is, we sadly did not see any dolphins but we did see seals, artic terns, and guillemots. Plus it was a beautiful sunny day, which we definitely appreciate in Scotland!
A distant guillemot
It’s not a UK holiday if you don’t visit an old house, am I right? Cawdor castle was built in the 14th century but never saw any defensive action – it’s just a nice, fortified house. It also has a holly tree growing inside the house because of a funny legend you can read about here if you’re interested.
The castle had beautiful gardens and an incredible forest that they called simply ‘the Big Wood’, and rightly so, for the trees are enormous!
Highland Wildlife Park
You may have heard that a polar bear cub has been born in the UK this year – the first time in 25 years. Well, it’s at the Highland Wildlife Park and we saw it playing with its mother. We also saw the infamous Scottish wildcat, which was amazing enough, but she had kittens! Wild kittens! I wanted to take them all home with me.
Scottish wildcat kitten
At the park you can walk around the areas that have the enclosures but you can also drive around the park on a mini safari. There are bison roaming free, as well as vicuna, horses, deer, and an elk, though we could not find the elk anywhere.
The other highlight was seeing the red squirrel. After a week of seeing bushy red tails disappearing out of the corner of my eye faster than I can take my lens cap off, we finally had a good look at a wild red squirrel who wandered into the woods to eat from a nut feeder.
My final post in my series on glamping in Wales will look at the activities we took part in. You can catch up on my previous posts here: Sleep and Eat.
Day 1: Check In
After a 6 hour train ride that involved several changes and delays, I checked into Hidden Valley Yurts for a week of comfortable glamping and fun activities. The first evening was really about having a brief look around the immediate site, settling into the yurt, and getting to know some of my fellow happy glampers.
Day 2: Wye Valley Walk
We drove to Tintern and met John Bosley of Forest of Dean and Wye Valley Tour Guides who took us on a guided walking tour of the Wye Valley. John was an excellent tour guide and provided plenty of facts about the local history of the area and also pointed out some of the local attractions, such as the Tintern cafe station and the Anchor Inn, in which we had later enjoyed tea and cake. The route we took meandered along the River Wye past Tintern, past the old Tintern train station (sadly defunct though once a hive of industry), through the notorious Brockweir, once famous for its debauchery, and up hill to take in views of Tintern Abbey, before winding up at the Abbey itself.
The landscape was absolutely stunning and following the river via wildflower meadows, with dandelions out in full bloom, was a beautiful sight, even in the torrential rain. And it really did rain, though this didn’t put off John, who is a real trooper! The tiny village of Brockweir was really interesting as it used to be a centre of industrial activity when the river was the main channel of commerce in previous centuries. Brockweir had more than its share of criminality and immoral living, so much so that local Christians managed to persuade the Moravians to finance the building of a Church in the village to rescue these lost souls from depravity. The church was very simple and interestingly the gravestones were all flat and tiny as part of the Moravian tradition – we are all equal in death.
After Brockweir we walked uphill to look down at the valley and from here you can see the river Wye on your right and the river Severn on your left. You can also just make out through the trees the ruins of Tintern Abbey and it’s easy to imagine how Wordsworth was so inspired by this view that he chose it to explore themes of the sublime in ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’.
Day 3: Farm Walks & Gorge Walks
In the morning, Mike, the owner of Hidden Valley Yurts, took us on a guided tour around the farm, meadows and woodlands. He explained how a previous owner died in the stream when returning home drunk from the pub, and how the Roundheads hid a foundry in the hills and disguised the path to Trellech as an old waterway. It was never discovered and is thought to be the reason the area is called ‘Hidden Valley.’ It’s easy to see how you can stay hidden in an area as remote as this.
As we walked, Mike pointed out the highland cattle that are used on the farm for conservation grazing. Magnificent creatures with longhorns and floppy fringes, they were a firm favourite amongst the photographers in our group, though unfortunately I didn’t get many good shots as I had to use my phone and not my camera at this point. We walked through some of the ancient woodland and took in the bluebells and wood anemone and tried to spot the fleeting woodland birds sheltering from the rain.
Further down we came across a rope swing attached to a tree and all spent some time on this. It was a lot of fun!
In the afternoon the rest of the group went with Inspire 2 Adventure on a gorge scrambling adventure. Unfortunately, with my heart condition this is not a suitable activity for me as it’s just too strenuous but it looks like a lot of fun. They climbed up waterfalls, scrambled through tunnels and generally got very, very wet! This looks like a fantastic activity for those up for a real challenge and you can find more information here.
Instead of the gorge walk, I had some time to myself and as the sun had finally decided to show its face I went for a long walk around the farm. I took my binoculars and hoped to do some birding but Tilly the dog had other plans – she decided she would take me for a walk instead. I think she may have frightened off the birds but I still had a fantastic time hanging out with the sweetest of spaniels and the cutest of companions. There’s nothing better than walking in woodlands, especially ancient, natural woodlands like the kind you find at Hidden Valley Yurts. A previous owner planted an arboretum in the 70’s to re-tree the area and the canopy is very impressive already after such a short time. It’s clearly very valuable ecologically as there’s evidence of badgers, birds, bugs and all sorts in the woods, as well as rare wildflowers.
Day 4: Canoeing on the river Wye & storytelling in Trellech
On our final full day of activities we set off by minibus to Monmouth to catch a canoe ride down to Whitebrook. I’ve never been canoeing before but we were in safe hands with Graham from Monmouth Canoe and Activity Centre. This is a really popular activity in the are as travelling by river is a great opportunity to experience the landscape from a different angle.
I took up position in the front as paddler, though the river was quite fast and really there was very little need to paddle. Graham steered the boat around the known hazards you might find in rivers – difficult bridges, random rocks – so we were in very safe hands. We even picked up a bit of litter along the way to help keep the environment healthy. Graham had a lot of knowledge to share about the river and pointed out all the bridges and towns along the way. We had beautiful sunshine for most of the journey and it made canoeing very relaxing. There was, of course, a sudden shower that lasted about 10 minutes in which we just let the river drift us down stream rather than using our very cold hands to paddle onwards.
Along the way we spotted martins nesting in an old dilapidated bridge, buzzards circling the woods, mandarin ducks by the banks, and swans sitting on their nests. There’s plenty of wildlife along the river and kingfishers and otters are occasionally seen, though sadly not by us.
The Boat Inn is a really nice pub you can stop at along the way but we didn’t have time. You can do full days canoeing and go further up river and take in this pub or others along the route and I’d definitely love to come back and do a full days canoeing one day!
On our final day we wound down with a bit of very pleasant storytelling with Jan from Strolls ‘n’ Stories. We met in Trellech and she led us to the old Norman castle that is now just a large mound with a very big tree on top. We climbed up and got good views of the surrounding countryside and I could see the first swallows of the year darting in and out of barns.
Jan is a fantastic storyteller and she told us about a character named ‘Old Nell’, a well-loved herbalist who met a sorry end when the plague struck Trellech and she suffered the anger of the mob who decided she was a witch. Jan made this sad tale really come to life and it’s a great way for children to learn about local history with a personal touch. Next we moved onto Harold’s stones, which are 3 stones stuck in the ground and no one is really sure why! Theories abound – are they druidical time-telling devices, ceremonial stones, the work of giants or a communication tool with aliens?!
Finally after another short stroll past the sun dial sculpture we went to the virtuous well, which was historically been used for its healing powers. Many people still place offerings here but it’s not advisable to drink the water any more. Here Jan told us the story of Lady Amberley, who is famous for being Bertrand Russell’s mother but should really be known for her suffragette activism and her own merits. This was a firm favourite amongst our group and we all loved listening to Jan tell this story about an inspiring woman lost to history.
Day 5: Lake House Tour & check out
Before our departure we took a tour of the new Lake House, which is soon to be open on site. The owners have been developing this new accommodation for some time – they’ve converted a previous owner’s summer party house into luxury accommodation. It’s a converted cricket pavillion and you can see all the stud marks on the floorboards from the cricketers’ spikes.
The Lake House is absolutely stunning and everyone wanted to move in straight away! It’s set by the lake, as the name suggests, so it’s a really tranquil location. It’s ideal for those who want to experience life in the Hidden Valley but want a little more luxury and privacy, as the Lake House will have its own driveway and is separate from the other yurts, though of course residents can still go to the main yurt area.
The accommodation is really beautiful and the location is so peaceful and perfect. There are two bedrooms, one with an immaculate en suite and beautiful tiles for the shower. The furniture is all boutique, unique specimens and it all fits beautifully together. The kitchen and living area is really spacious and the kitchen has everything you need – cooker, butler sink, Smeg fridge, and all the worktops and units are tastefully made. The sofa is very large and comfy and be converted into a bed if needed, meaning that the Lake House can sleep 4-6. There’s more in the way of technology here than at the yurts as there’s a TV and WiFi (though you don’t have to use it if you still want that digital detox experience!)
The outdoor area is really special as well. There’s a BBQ and seating, and a wicker fence surrounding it in front of the lake. You’re right in the woods as well, with the stream nearby as well as your own lake, which attracts ducks, otters, and toads in the breeding season.
After the tour of the Lake House (which I am totally booking one day!) we packed up our stuff, straightened out the yurts, said our goodbyes to Tilly the dog and gave our heartfelt thanks to Mike for accommodating us and Alex from ALS Marketing for organising and driving us all over. This has been an absolutely fantastic break in nature and a much needed digital detox. I’ve got to know some fantastic people and done some really amazing activities – I want to take up canoeing now! The woodlands I can wander in for days and never get bored, and the yurts could easily be my home for weeks without discomfort.
In the final week of April I took on a challenge that was so far out of my comfort zone as to be in a different postcode. I spent 5 days glamping in south Wales, an area of the UK I’ve never visited before.
I was invited to stay with Hidden Valley Yurts, a glamping site in the Wye Valley, near a tiny Welsh village named Llanishen. I was promised a back-to-nature digital detox experience and I was not disappointed.
I’m going to share my experiences with you through a series of three blog posts focusing on the accommodation, the food, and the activities. So first of all I’ll start with the site.
Hidden Valley Yurts is located on a farm in the Welsh hills, with access to tourist hot spots like Tintern, the river Wye, Monmouth and the Brecon Beacons. I can’t call it “easy” access as the roads are as to be expected – narrow, hilly, and not for the faint-hearted. You can read all about the history of the site here but to summarise: the new owners took over in 2015 and have given the yurts and facilities a full makeover and created a really special place to stay.
Mongolian yurts are a really cosy concept. The decor inside is intricate and the beautiful furniture gives it a homely feel. The beds and futons are ridiculously comfortable and, despite being out of my comfort zone, I had some of the best nights’ sleep I’ve had for a long time. Partly this was the incredibly comfortable mattress but I think the darkness also had something to do with it.
Each yurt comes equipped with a log burner and all logs, kindling, paper and firelighters required to get a roaring fire going. This sometimes presents a challenge for many visitors but I’m pleased to report it’s a skill we all managed to master. It didn’t take long for the log burners to heat up the yurt and we were soon cosy and warm – a very essential feature in rainy Wales!
This is camping made easy. The yurt site boasts a fully equipped kitchen with all pots, pans, cutlery, washing up materials, so you really don’t need to bring anything like that with you – there’s even an espresso machine! The communal kitchen is really beautifully made and although it’s covered it is partly open air, so whilst you’re waiting for your food to cook or the kettle to boil you can gaze at the impressive canopy opposite and try to see how many birds and squirrels you can spot.
I did, of course, end up bringing too much food with me and had to leave some behind for the next guests. One of the most helpful aspects of this trip was that most major supermarkets deliver to the site and when I arrived Mike had already put all my shopping away in the kitchen for me. This meant I could eat well and easily, especially as there is a fridge and freezer in the kitchen.
The bathroom and toilets are really quite posh for a glamping site, let alone a campsite! The water was always warm and there’s even a bath if you fancy a long relaxing soak after a hard day’s hill hiking. There are also some compost toilets for yurts 1 and 2 and yurt 1 has its own smaller kitchen so if you’re not into communal campsite living you can always book yurt 1 and enjoy a bit more privacy.
There’s a lovely little campfire area with BBQ and outdoor seating but sadly we never got to try this as the evenings were either rainy or windy, which was a real shame as I can imagine it would have been so nice to sit by the fire roasting vegan marshmallows.
The yurts are located on Lower Glyn Farm, an old working farm with woodlands and meadows. I would have loved to have seen the wildflower meadows in full bloom but I visited in April; I did, however, see plenty of bluebells dotted about the site and they put on a particularly good show in the ancient woodlands with the wood anemone. In fact, there are plenty of wildflowers to be found so it’s a botanists dream. (Please don’t pick the wildflowers though – the bees need them.)
There are plenty of excellent walks around the 80 acre farm for all abilities. I have to be honest and point out that this is a valley and there are hills so some of the walks are quite steep. I’m a Norfolk girl so this was quite challenging to me! (For all my non-UK readers, Norfolk is known for being completely flat.) But after a few days I adapted to hill-walking and I even think my ankles might have changed shape.
Throughout the site runs a stream that children would love to play in. It’s very shallow in places and provides a very relaxing sound when drifting off to sleep. There are quite a few bridges across the stream throughout that you come across when walking and we even found a really attractive little waterfall. I’m told that occasionally kingfishers and otters can be spotted though I didn’t have such good luck. On one of our walks we came by a tree swing near the stream in a really private area – a really good find for families!
Speaking of families, there is also a large supply of board games and outdoor games, including a boules pitch and a football pitch. There’s plenty of space to run around in and explore and I can’t imagine any child being bored here.
The farm uses some animals for conservation grazing on the meadows – highland cattle, soays sheep. I even came across a pony. But by far the best animal on site is Tilly the dog – the friendliest, most lovable spaniel! She likes nothing better than just hanging out and having her belly rubbed. One afternoon she took me for a walk through the woodlands!
Hidden Valley Yurts has been a wonderful place to stay to get away from city life and reconnect with nature. It’s so easy and welcome to have a complete digital detox here – for a start, there’s no WiFi and phone signal is poor. This is of course camping for those who like a few mod cons, like a proper kitchen and clean bathroom facilities. I was so impressed by how cosy and comfortable the yurts are! I also really liked the fact that there are endless walks on the farm and in the local area so you don’t even have to travel anywhere if you don’t want to – you can just stay on site and explore the natural world and get away from modern life. The landscape is truly stunning and the woodlands provide so much wildlife to enjoy – it’s a birder’s and nature lover’s paradise.
Welcome to the second in my wildlife focus blog series (did you catch the first on the mole?) and in this one I’m sharing some facts about the great spotted woodpecker. You can tell them apart from their lesser cousins by their distinctive black and white wings, white shoulder part, and scarlet flashes on the adult males and juveniles. The crucial difference is the red underpart on the great, which the lesser does not have [here’s a video by the BTO that goes into more depth.]
Woodpeckers drum on trees and other objects in a show of territory and to attract a mate. Unpaired GS woodpeckers can drum 600 times a day, while a paired male may drum around 200. They can even smack their heads into trees at 15 miles per hour with apparently no ill effects.
The great (not greater) spotted woodpecker is a species of fairness and equality – both sexes share the duty of excavating the nest holes and incubating the eggs on the nest. This is quite unusual in birds, as usually the males go out for food and return to the nest to feed the nesting mother and their chicks. For the great spotted woodpecker, however, both the male and female will incubate the eggs for around 12-20 days until they hatch, at which point the chicks fledge the nest, though they continue to be looked after for 10 days as they grow increasingly independent.
Woodpeckers have started visiting garden feeders in the last 20 years – if you want to attract them, put out suet and peanuts.
They primarily eat insects but will feast on small bird chicks in spring.
Juveniles have a red hat and adult males can be identified by the patch of red on the back of their necks.
Like other woodpeckers, they are zygodactylic – they have two toes facing forward and two toes facing backward, which enables them to climb trees.