Saturday 29 March 2014

Artist and Sailor A. Donald Rudd, the man who gave me Astronomy

Most people of my age (and many others!) would probably say that Patrick Moore was their earliest astronomy hero, and indeed for me he was incredibly important. I was utterly in awe to meet the great man, as I did at his Selsey home in 1989. However, he was not my first astronomical mentor. This honour went to Donald Rudd, Kircudbright artist, sailor, and owner of a Morris car with moss growing in the engine.

I don't ever remember how Donald came to be in my life, he just always was. Certainly he was near neighbours to my mum and I when we moved back to my mum's hometown in South West Scotland in 1974. His artist's biography states he was married to a woman called Helen, but until I read that I had no idea. As long as I knew him he shared a house with the formidable chain-smoking Oona, mother of my mum's best friend from way back and to all intents and purposes family. As was Donald himself, always known as “Rudd” to Oona, my mother, and everyone in town.

He was a heavy heavy man, thick necked, balding, and possessor of old school sideburns that didn't quite meet to become a beard. He smoked either a pipe – which I remember sucking on when unlit and finding the most disgusting thing in my five year old experience – or a cigarette that for reasons of greater nicotine and tar intake, he'd pierce through the middle just after the filter, swinging the fag about on a needle.

His voice was what I always remember as the soft Scot's accent of the South West, harshly treated by a larynx with the inbuilt effect pedal of “gruff” turned up to full. There was also a curious wateriness about his voice, a bubbling quality like it was rising up through one of those mud geysers you get in New Zealand. It's hard to believe that when I first knew him, he was only the same age as I am now, he seemed incredibly ancient to me.

He and Oona's house was a long, dark place down an alleyway next door to ours, and thus also near the Tollbooth where scenes from the Wicker Man were filmed. The only light bit was the kitchen, which was custardly linoed and a permanent mess of cat and / or dog food and endless packets of Ryvita that were clearly having no effect on Oona's mass whatsoever. There was a small living area, stone clad, filled with ash trays and dark brown furniture to go with the dark brown carpet. Then there treacherous wooden slippery stairs with no balcony, behind that a nether world of sailing ships in glass cases, painted copies of “The Fighting Temeraire” and other nauticalia surrounding a huge and never ever used dining table.

I remember endless plastic bottles of some kind of home brew filling this back area up at one time, possibly 50 or 60 bottles. It was some kind of mildly alcoholic hibiscus type cordial, and a few of the bottles exploded. In my memory at least. Rudd's favourite other tipple I was allowed to know about was “Green Pop”, some limeade concoction. At night, he preferred stronger brews.

Up the steep stairs, where I'd frequently explore unrestrained, were the bedrooms – untidy, and eventually at the top, Rudd's attic studio, a rose hip sauce on semolina mess of colour, easels, and paint encrusted pallets festooned with sheets of toilet paper and soaked with the smell of white spirit. For some reason I was always equally fascinated with the header tank and the big orange plastic ball on a stick within it. Strange child.

Our Donald Rudd landscape, apparently not many of his works survive
 A lasting memory is of Rudd taking us egg rolling one Easter Sunday on the Moat Brae, the castle grounds overlooking the harbour. We had painted the eggs the previous night, in the delicate blue of antique china, and violet, lovely dyes rather better handled by my mother than my clumsy smudges. The rolled eggs were brought back to us by Rudd's manchester terrier Speedie – who put me in hospital once when he bit me on the face – and then eaten by me irrespective of dog saliva or the dye soaking through the shell to give the eggs an alien quality. 

I remember also Rudd's boat “Fourness” - a noisy sloop with a square cabin, belching smoke up and down the Dee estuary. I think we went out on it once, chugging away out to Ross Island Lighthouse. I hid in a cabin full of spiders.

But above all, Rudd gave me astronomy. He had some kind of ancient almanac, in a rough sort of hessian blue cover, detailing the positions of the stars at each month. The constellation of “Bootes” obsessed me, I thought it was the most wonderful thing ever, and tracked its movements across the faded creamy pages of the almanac. Noting I was fascinated, he gave me a proper guide to the planets – back in those days Jupiter only had 13 moons – and let me look through a little monocular telescope he had. He said he had been a navigator aboard HMS Warspite, although he must have been incredibly young. It was only later that I got given Patrick Moore's “Observer's Guide to Astronomy”, possibly by my Grandmother, and began to recognise the constellations properly. Nevertheless it was Rudd who was my inspiration.

When he died in 1993, I was deeply saddened. It was round about my 21st birthday, and must have seen him for the last time the year before, his “Rudd's Spuds” cafe abandoned as a last commercial venture. I was given a sort of granite stargazing hare as a birthday present, and in honour of Rudd, it still sits, gazing at the heavens, on my mantelpiece.

Copyright Cream Crackered Nature 29.03.14

Friday 28 March 2014

Dog Violets and Squill

New life and dancing ducks put on a new in Newark Cemetery and around the two lakes. Squill forming fairy rings around the trees, emerging dog violets with their heart shaped leaves emerging, and canada geese honking with an unmusicality unsurpassed in history as they chase each other around the water.

Leroy the Muscovy too was in fine form. He waddled ungainly up from the waterside to park by a fence, where I was able to ask his goose sized self for a photo opp. In response he raised his crest, seemed to make his fleshy face flush even redder, and perform a wildly bobbing dance as he panted like a dog; a great, rasping breath that could have stripped paint off doors.

Chiff chaffs are now singing along the cycle path, their sonar like peeping heard amidst the rich song of blackbirds and the repetitive whistle of the great tits.

Magical squill circle
Squill Close Up
Leroy with his crest up
Tatty hidden bird's nest
Dog violet, I believe
Magnificent muscovy

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Newark Cemetery Changes with the Months

Today was my first trip through the cemetery for over a week, and how it has changed. Since the first blossom appeared in December 2013 I've tracked the changes amongst the flora, and watched as first the snowdrops and the winter aconite, then the crocuses, and then the daffodils appeared; peering up cautiously through the ground and finding a warmer than normal spring, the flowers have ensured the cemetery has been in wonderful bloom.

But now the purple and white avenues of crocuses are gone, a few wretched specimens remain defiantly  amongst the daffodils now dominant. The snowdrops and aconite are long over; squill and primrose are now the blankets on the resting places of the dead.

The hyacinth, a pretty flower with a tough looking stem
Squill amidst the daffodils

I then cut across the Hawtonville Estate to Sconce and Devon Park, where I walked quietly through the oak wood by the river, looking at chaffinches and blue tits high up in the trees, and listening to the loud and repetitive "dee-doo" call of great tits. I then crossed to the other side of the park, and as I walked past the Sconce earthwork, I was delighted to hear a chiff chaff singing somewhere in the hedgerow bordering the allotments. As I entered Hawton Holt, another started up, but as the Park Ranger told me, you have no chance of ever seeing one. Far too shy.

These are the first chiff chaffs I've ever heard in Sconce Park, the ranger told me they've been singing there for a few days now. It was a pleasant end to my walk, especially with a warming cup of tea in Rumbles to cap it all off.
The screen in Hawton Holt

Monday 24 March 2014

Spring Observations Under a Freezing Sky; The Northern Globulars

This is the first really clear sky without any hint of a moon I've had a for a fair old while, or so it seems, and I was really looking to take advantage of this. Despite a frost in the air that was making my hands glow purpley-blue in the darkness or so it felt.

I took a tiny tot of rum with me for warming purposes - those heating vapours, you know - and got my binoculars out, starting out with M44 the Beehive, already low down by midnight in March, but barely seen all year with all the bad weather. It wasn't the best view, but there, I'd seen it. I also took time to observe the beautiful constellation of Coma Berenices, a glittering waterfall of faint stars filling the field of view in my 10x50s. I can't spot any of the galaxies, but I really don't care.

I then turned my attention to my main targets; the great globular clusters of spring. There's more on them here:

I've never seen M10 or 12, and Ophiuchus is not really a March constellation at this time in my garden, so I headed further North and picked out all my targets very quickly. It is interesting that to me, Messier 5 is almost equal with Messier 13, while the more diffuse (to my eyes) Messier 3 is rated as superior. I like finding Messier 5, as to navigate to it, you start at the bright orange and fascintatingly named star Unakalhaut, Alpha Serpentis.

Good name for a star that, almost as good as Zubenelgenubi in Libra.

The fourth on the list is the other, overshadowed globular in Hercules, Messier 92. I've found it easily before, but last night, the reduced observing schedule of the winter had put my eyes out of practice so badly, they were squinting shut! My poor eyes!

So, it was with disappointment in my heart that I headed for bed without craning my neck (and probably straining it again) to look for the Ursa Major galaxies.

Wednesday 19 March 2014

No Sand Martins in Farndon

After a very lazy day yesterday, felt the need to head out into the wilds and do something energetic.

The Farndon stretch of the Trent may hardly be The Outback, but, gosh, it can get very muddy out there. What adventure!

As it happened, I thought the warmer drier weather might have dried up the route a bit, and so it proved. I was on the lookout for Wood Anemones in Willow Holt; any Whoopers or Bewicks, or even the famous black swan, lurking amidst the grazing mutes, and sand martins down the power station reach.

I saw none of these things. Despite the warming weather, I only saw one butterfly on the wing and that was a peacock in town. But I did have a very pleasant run along the water, and I did a lovely view of a  reedbunting, a very subtle bird with its black painted forehead and chin, and warm, striated upper parts.

But the hirundids, well, I shall have to wait. I know they are around, but they can obviously see my yellow running top a mile off.

Monday 17 March 2014

Hopeless Lunar Photography

They make it look so easy on the Sky at Night, or BBC Stargazing. You get your telescope, point it at the Moon or Jupiter, and then reach for your phone. You turn on the camera, hold it up to the eyepiece, tap the screen to focus and away you go! Beautiful lunar photographs instantly result.

Only, it isn't really like that. At all.

Although I do have a cumbersome (and living with my parents) 6 inch reflector, clear skies with a bright moon the other night had me deploying my 20-60x60 spotter scope. Designed for birdwatching, it only has a small tripod, but sat on top of a wheelie bin, you can get some quite acceptable lunar views. Although the moon was all but full, I enjoyed looking at obvious landmarks; the dark floored craters Grimaldi and Plato, the ray craters Tycho and Copernicus, and the brilliant small crater Aristarchus, the brightest spot on the moon.

The Bay of Rainbows (Sinus Iridium to the posh) is also a fascinating sight not too far from Plato. It really does have the look of a proper terran coastline, a deeply curbed bay with highlands behind it, like a lunar greek island resort.

The problem starts when I try and photograph any of this. I feel like I have to sneak up on the eyepiece so the moon doesn't run away, holding my breath all the while, such is the complete difficulty of getting the camera lens onto the eyepiece, and then onto the moon. The slightest shake of the hand makes the moon disappear out of view, and it's difficult enough to get in the bloody view in the first place.

It is so damn fiddly. The most steady handed of brain surgeons would struggle to line the moon up with the have to follow this tell tale trail of optical effects - back to front - in order to get the moon into shot. You then have to tap screen to focus, activate the shutter, and wait for the picture to be taken for what seems like an age, as the slightest tremor sends to the moon skittering off screen again, and you howl in frustration, and wake your neighbours up.

But, eventually, I got some results.

A bit of moon
Another bit of moon being attacked by a red thing

Saturday 15 March 2014

A Multitude of Images from Newark Spring

Sconce Park orchard blossoming
Hawthorn in Excelsis
Pancake Peacock
The buzz from these trees was incredible
What flavour of primrose do you like?
Cemetery primrose
All shapes, all shades
Gorgeous small tortoiseshell near Northgate Station
The days may be warm, the nights have been cold and foggy

Thursday 13 March 2014

Tourettes and Nature

So, the weather outside is good, but I'm stuck inside, a twelve hour shift with no natural light.

I've had a few tics, been a little bit jumpy. Too much energy to burn, and no way of burning it. Tourette's is a condition exarcebated by stress, and in my case, an un-occupied brain can start obsessing, leading to an increase in symptoms. Sometimes picking up envelopes just isn't stimulating enough.

It made me reflect on how good I think Nature is for my Tourete's specifically, and my mental health in general. When I walk, cycle, or run, there is a rhythym, and purpose, to my motion that smooths out to a large degree the jerkiness and twitchiness of my normal motion.I may twitch or speed up if I get excited, but nowhere near as violently as can happen normally.

In addition to the physical motion, I like to employ Radio 4 as a means to impart informational noise to the brain to drown out any obessive or rage-y thoughts that may be lurking there. I always like to believe my exercise is also an aid to learning, although Radio 4 goes straight off if "Any Questions" starts any ominous looming in my eardrums.

There is also the challenge of nature that keeps my brain busy and so on an even keel. "What is that flower? Was is there a week ago?" "Is that a goosander on the lake again?" "What bird could that be singing?" - I also like to look up, and about, all the time, always hoping to see something. Thus I keep mentally active...and also trip up on chain fences and strain my ribs in the process. But at least I'm happier while I'm doing it.

The main thing is just an overall feeling of wellbeing from being able to exercise in the open air. And I'm not talking in a masochistic, bodybuilding "no pain no gain" or (ugh) "feel the burn" sense. It's almost more in the sense of exercising your right to be outside in the - free - open air, to do what you want with no-one out there telling you when you have to go inside again.

The freedom is wonderful, and I'm always gratified to see folk doing similar things to me. And I'll keep doing it, easing my Tourette's, settling my mind, forever I hope.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

The Underrated Moorhen

As I was out showing my friend around Balderton Lake, it was impossible to ignore the large number of moorhens scuttling around on the the lakeshore, or hauling themselves through the water with the characteristic motion of their bobbing head.

Most of the time, they just get ignored.

I can't believe I'm alone is sometimes regarding the moorhen as a 'non-bird'. Along with the coot, mallard and canada goose, it isn't really regarded as something worth recording. Certainly not in comparison with a goosander, pochard or even Leroy the muscovy on this local lake.

The fact is, it is a really under-appreciated bird. It has some wonderful colours in its plumage - glossy blacks with just a hint of irridescence, a scarlet beak tipped with bright yellow, and its gawky green legs showing a hint of bright red where the thigh meets the belly, as if the moorhen is hoping to attract attention while out hitchhiking. As it walks, its twitching tail flashes white like a bunny rabbit hopping through a meadow.

A Balderton Lake moorhen
Their antics are great fun too. They are the sort of bird that seems quite tame until the moment you produce your cameraphone in order to take a picture, at which point it will make for water or the nearest cover with its comedic, yet delicate, overstriding gait. When they reach the water, they swim with the style of a clockwork toy that somehow keeps making jerky progress despite various bits of the mechanism seemingly working in opposite directions.

They are very characterful birds, and as for the chicks, with their black furry ping pong ball bodies stuck on a pair of comedy oversize feet, well they are a delight!

Copyright CreamCrackeredNature 12.03.14

Tuesday 11 March 2014

And Spring Sprung Over Newark

I've had a very busy few days, taking a guest to see the sights of town - perhaps slightly over-enthusiastically as I gave her blisters yesterday - but with conditions like we've had, it was far too good to waste.

Sunday was just a staggeringly nice day, the sun blazing down on our backs as we opened the front door and headed in the direction of Sconce and Devon Park. As soon as I walked down my driveway, ladybirds, big queen bumblebees and peackock and small tortoiseshell butterflies were dancing in the warm air.

After a few false starts, this was the new season in all its joy.

We walked down Boundary Road, and just after how I exclaimed how to me the emergence of the bright yellow brimstone butterfly males was the true marker of spring, one beautiful specimen flew across straight in front of us.

It was a pleasant change to be walking, rather than running painfully, on the Newark parkrun course, and robins and blackbirds serenaded us as we ascended the bark path. The Orchard was alive with bees feeding off the hawthorn blossom, you could hear entire trees all a-buzz, as long tailed tits and goldfinch flitted amongst the other trees.

Sadly Hawton Holt was closed on a Sunday, but Rumbles cafe wasn't, and it was a great feeling to have a cup of tea in the warm sun, and watch happy families using the park, and see the butterflies and bees meander hither and thither.

Yesterday there was a Northerly chill in the air that occasionally bursts of sun could only take the edge off. The butterflies stayed in bed, but there were a few bumble bees about in the cemetery, as squill emerged to take over from the over snowdrops, and the just past their peak crocuses. The male great crested grebes look magnificent at the moment, and even Leroy the muscovy seemed to be sporting an even redder face than normal - I'm told he's been seen being amorous with the local lady mallards and domestic ducks.

But it was on the path up the hill from Clay Lane to Beacon Hill estate that I heard the sound that really excited...the aerated two tone whistle "CHIFF CHAFF" sounding out over the woodland that straggles up the hillside. There was indeed a chiff chaff singing its song, the first I've heard in Newark this year, and how pleased I was to explain to my companion about this tiny bird, the feathered harbringer of wamer times.

Now, we await the sand martins, first of the hirundines.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Sconce Park Walk

Unidentifed blossom (too early for Hawthorn?), Valley Prospect end of the park
Newly opened daffodil, the Oak Wood by the River Devon
Bat box in the Oak Wood
Hawton Holt sign

Monday 3 March 2014

The Fly Tipping Scourge, Alas

It really felt like a proper early spring day today. Every day the sun gets higher in the sky, and thus even if the ambient temperature isn't actually all that high - 7C or so today - it still feels pretty warming.

I did 20 miles, two bike rides in one. Phase one was the Cotham route, Phase two the Coddington one. I was hoping to come across bumble bees or butterflies, but in the end I saw neither. There were no flocks of redwing in the roadside trees, no fieldfare in the fallow looking farm fields.

No, what I did see was a couple of barrow boy scrappy kids on Hawton Lane, taking the metal pump out of what looked like a fridge freezer. I may be being cynical, but I don't suppose they had the license to deal with a fridge stuffed full of coolant. Nor did I think that after removing any bits of value, that it wasn't going to be left just where they were messing with it.

I see an awful lot of fly tips while out on the roads in these areas, or running along Clay Lane. Two main types - builders waste, including asbestos - and the aforementioned white goods. It just makes me really angry. You see on Facebook all the time that folk are leaving out stuff for scrappers to pick up, not wanting to pay the council for removal, and frankly not caring what happens to it providing the carcass of a washing machine isn't left on their front garden.

Im probably being very very naieve, but if private contractors and collectors can make money out of scrap, why can't the local council? They could collect it for free, and make a little revenue on the scrap to plough back into local services. They are having to waste money on clearing up the rubbish anyway, people aren't going to stop fly tipping out of the goodness of their hearts.

And perhaps the drivers wouldn't be as dangerous as some of the current specimens, and the vehicles not so shoddy.

As for builders rubble, well, perhaps it might be quite easy to set up a camera trap at the well known dumping spots, and crack down hard on the miscreants. It sounds petty, but it really disgusts me when I'm out and about. Last summer, it seemed there was a fly tip every half mile between Cotham and Thorpe.

Well, I shall descend from my high horse now, and look forward to really starting to see some butterflies when I'm next off work! And head to RSPB Langford at the weekend, possibly, without getting blown away.

Sunday 2 March 2014

Devon Pastures

Well, I was a lazy boy today. I should have been up like a lark this morning, albeit a lark that doesn't fly, sing, and actually has to go downstairs in order to go out rather than fly straight up like a weightless arrow.

So I thought I would walk to Sconce and Devon Park for the sheer pleasure of being outside, on a rather blustery day with rain in the air. En Route, I pondered what a "Condor Doctor" might be at the hospital, and noted that daisies and dandelions were now in flower, and the gardens and hedges along Hawton Road have become markedly more colourful in the past few days. I myself have bought a packet of wildflower seeds for my folk's garden, to see if we can increase the butterfly count. Tree bumblebees already adore the Ceonothus.

So, back to Sconce Park, and the Oak Wood was full of birdsong, dominated seemingly by the repetitive two note call of the great tit. The birds were up high however, and I didn't see many, apart from a pair of long tailed tits dancing delicately on twigs at low level.

Sadly, Hawton Holt was closed, but I was able to enjoy a cup of tea at the fun and cosy little Rumbles cafe, speak to my friends, and get ready for a busy afternoon...

...spent sleeping.

Saturday 1 March 2014

A Lovely 15 Miles on the not so Lovely Bike

In honour of the first day of spring, with roads warmed by a bright sun, I headed out on my sad old Jupiter Trailblazer with the front brakes I have to adjust by hand while riding.

Every tree or television aerial seemed to have a blackbird singing on it, and plenty of small birds were crashing about in the undergrowth. Once again, many families with tiny kids riding bikes the size of cats were on the N64, as well as the inevitable "Freds" on their thousand pound Specializeds with all the flash gear.

No Nick at the landfill, but there weren't any gulls AT ALL when I rode past. On the Cotham - Elston road there didn't seem to be a lot of yellowhammers in the hedgerows, but I did come across a large flock of fieldfares in a field similar to the Coddington one. Such attractive birds, with their slate grey heads and chestnut breast. I suspect they will be gone with the first warm weather and south westerly winds of Spring, off to breed in Scandanavia.

There were some swans mooching around in a far corner of that same field, this sort of loose soiled farm field, with low level vegetatation, seems very attractive to birds.

A kestrel was watching me from a telegraph line the next field along. I thought a few buzzards might be about looking for thermals, but perhaps the weather was a little chilly for them, and indeed as I left Thorpe village - nearly colliding with a horsey girl driven car, some rain began to fall and a rainbow loomed across the bridge over the new A46.

But it wasn't a hard rain falling, and it didn't take away the enjoyment of having usefully spent another hour in the open air.