Category Archives: United Kingdom

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So this is Christmas and what have you done

Another year over and a new one just begun*

As 2016 ends I’ve been looking back on what I’ve done since returning to the UK in December 2014, after 15 years living overseas, in New Zealand, Rarotonga (in the Cook Islands) and New York City (December 2010-14). Settling back in the UK has been difficult.

2015 was particularly stressful because I spent a tiring and, at times, demoralising 12 months applying for jobs (a process I’d already spent 6-months on back in the US). It wasn’t until November 2015 that I got a Living Wage job in a sector (social care) I would never have considered until it became obvious I would not get a job specific to my qualifications, skills, and experience as a science adviser and researcher.

During this time my New Zealand wife went through a costly, drawn out and stressful process, including a return to Auckland, to obtain the right to live in the UK.

The major plus was that I’d bought a flat in London in the 1990s when if you were on a reasonable wage you’d be offered a mortgage that allowed you to buy a decent property in a reasonable part of London. I bought a basic 2-bedroom flat with French windows opening onto the Lea Navigation Canal below Tottenham Lock. Now mortgage-free, we can sit and watch canal life as people go boating, cycling, dog walking, fishing, running, sculling, walking by. If we’re feeling more energetic there’s 28-miles of towpath to explore between the tidal river Thames at Limehouse Basin to the northern terminus at Hertford.

Looking upstream to Tottenham Lock from our lounge

A major reason for moving back to London was to be near family and friends, but working shift work and weekends in low paid work supporting people with learning disabilities left little energy, time or money to socialise.

However, 2016 ended on a high when in mid-December I started working at a local college where I am supporting young people with autism. I am no longer working shift or weekend work, and am working in an environment which promises to be more personally rewarding.

There have also been more travel and leisure experiences during the past year. In July we stayed in an old country villa in Corsica with friends from New Zealand. This lazy 5-day trip was a much-needed break from my job. In contrast, my previous trip to Corsica with my brother in 1988, focused on walking the Grande Randonnée (GR) 20, a rugged 180km (112.5 mile) trail considered one of Europe’s most beautiful mountain trails.

One of the spectacular views around the Corsican town of Corte

In September we took a six-day road trip with my wife’s mum and sister who visited from New Zealand. We took in Canterbury and Dover Castle in Kent; Eastbourne, the Brighton Pavilion and Chichester Cathedral in Sussex; Stonehenge, Avebury and Castle Combe in Wiltshire; Dorchester, Cerne Abbas, Abbotsbury and Lyme Regis in Dorset; Exeter, Castle Drogo, and Dartmoor, including the Bronze Age settlement of Grimspound and the village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, in Devon; and Wells in Somerset, with its fantastic cathedral.

Looking toward tors on Dartmoor from the graveyard of the Church of St Pancras, Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon

When I left New York City I vowed to keep up with my birdwatching in the UK after all the pleasure I had from being involved in it in the US. Getting out on birdwatching trips with a local Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) branch and the local Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group has become a mainstay of my social life.

When I want a walk or to go birdwatching alone I’m only a few minutes’ walk from the Walthamstow Reservoirs (which will feature in future posts). They’ve become a regular bolt-hole for me over the past year. They were particularly atmospheric and eerily quiet in the foggy weather of a few days ago.

Reservoir No. 5 Walthamstow Reservoirs, in the fog (30 December 2016)

With weekends and summer evenings now free, I’ll be spending more time birdwatching and getting involved in local conservation efforts. I’ll also be visiting different parts of the UK (both old favourites and new destinations) and will have an eye open for flight/accommodation bargains that make overseas travel possible.

However, my main New Year’s resolution is to spend more time on independent and art house cinema, an interest developed during my years in 1990s London. I had good options to pursue this during my years living in Wellington, NZ, and in Astoria in NYC, . where the excellent Museum of the Moving Image was only a 15-minute walk from home.

We have joined the British Film Institute on London’s South Bank, where my wife and I recently enjoyed the 1939 Howard Hawks comedy His Girl Friday. Starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, it is one of the fastest-talking films ever: the dialogue has been estimated at 250 words per minute against an industry average of 100-150 words. It was the first movie we had seen in a year. It’s time to put that right!

*Click for full lyrics of John Lennon’s “So this is Christmas”

Six miles from home and 450 years back in time

Recently I visited Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge in Chingford, north-east London. The Lodge is an unique three-storey, timber-framed hunting grandstand. It is still surrounded by its medieval royal hunting forest, Epping Forest, an area of ancient woodland managed by the City of London Corporation.

The Lodge played an important part in my childhood with regular family visits. In the 1960s I submitted a painting of the Lodge for a competition run by the popular children’s TV show Blue Peter (still going strong in 2016). Alas my hopes of winning a coveted Blue Peter badge (of any colour) weren’t realised.

I have fond memories of a birthday in the early 1970s when my dad drove me and some mates out to Chingford Plain from where we orienteered in the forest, played football and visited the Lodge. We rounded the day off with an epic rotten apple fight in my back garden.  I couldn’t have asked for more!

Back then the Lodge’s timbers were black because the Victorians used oils to blacken the timbers and make them stand out. While most people today consider this is what a traditional timber-frame house should look like, black timbers would have been uncommon in Tudor times. In 1993 extensive renovation work replaced or repaired rotted timbers and restored the exterior to what scholars today believe to be closer to its original appearance.

The restored Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge

The building was commissioned by Henry VIII in 1543 as an open-sided timber-framed hunting grandstand, known as the Great Standing, from which guests could view the hunt at Chingford and shoot deer from the upper floors. Both King Henry and Queen Elizabeth I may have hunted in the forest, though no documentary evidence survives to prove it.

The building was renovated in 1589 for Queen Elizabeth. Constructed from massive oak timbers and using innovative joints, the superior finish to the timbers indicates a building of high status. After 1604 the Lodge ceased to be used in connection with hunting at all and windows were installed after the reign of Charles I.

The Lodge has been open to the general public since 1895. When it first opened to the public it was used as a museum of natural history and archaeology; this was still its incarnation when I was visiting in the 1960s and 70s. Today it is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade II* listed building (refer to National Heritage List for England (NHLE)), still open to the public but simply as a monument to itself and the Tudor era. With three floors it’s unique in England as the only Standing with more than two floors.

Today the Lodge has exhibitions on Tudor food and fashion with a themed display on each of its three floors. Through a Tudor dinner table display on the ground floor you can discover the sights and sounds of the Royal Kitchen and learn about class and cuisine.

The kitchen on the ground floor

On the first floor there is a range of Tudor outfits for trying on and guides to Tudor heraldry. The windows on the second floor, the King’s Shooting Gallery, provide extensive views of the forest. I  found the architecture interesting and thought the intricate Tudor timber roof construction  was really impressive – note the antler shapes in the photo below.

The amazing ceiling construction
The top floor showing the elaborate ceiling construction

I vividly remembered from my childhood the stairs leading up from the ground floor,  up which,  legend says, Queen Elizabeth rode her horse.

Did Queen Elizabeth ride up this staircase?
Did Queen Elizabeth really ride up this staircase?
Cutaway showing building construction
Cutaway showing building construction

One thing that surprised me on my latest visit was how disappointed I was that the exhibits of mounted butterflies and moths, stuffed deer, reptiles in jars, etc., which I had enjoyed in the 1960s and 70s were no longer on display. Even during childhood visits some were already moth-eaten (no pun intended) and others compellingly grotesque, but they played a large part in developing my passion for the natural world. It was no great surprise that they were long gone, but it made me very nostalgic.

I’d  recommend a visit taking in the Lodge and The View next door, a building nestled between the Lodge and the Royal Forest pub.  Entry is free and there’s parking available with eating and watering places such as the Royal Forest pub/restaurant and the Butler’s Retreat café within easy walking distance.

The Lodge with the Royal Forest pub/restaurant in background

The View is a modern Epping Forest interpretation centre, the central orientation point for the whole forest and designed to appeal to all ages.  It has a well-stocked gift shop  and knowledgeable staff will admit you to the Lodge, provide useful information and run tours of the Lodge. Chatting to a staff member I learned that some of the collections I remembered may well have been archived offsite by Epping Forest District Council.

The View’s displays and exhibits showcase some of the main themes, stories and habitats of the forest, preparing visitors to experience them in the forest itself. It holds frequent events, and a range of art collections and historical interpretation related to the forest.  The View is fully accessible via a lift and there are extensive views of the forest from an outdoor rear balcony. Two way-marked trails start at its back door. Information on opening hours can be found here.

Address: 8 Ranger’s Rd, London E4 7QH

Phone:      020 7332

Location:  Google Maps


For Those in Peril on the Sea

In April 2015 I took my first birding trip outside London since returning to the UK; a coach trip from London to Rye Harbour Nature Reserve in East Sussex1. While I spotted species I hadn’t seen for many years what left the most lasting impression was coming across the historical Mary Stanford Lifeboat House, and learning of the disaster that had befallen the village of Rye House in 1928.

The sea has always been of huge importance to the UK as an island nation; for commerce, defence and recreation. Its coastline is broken making it longer than those of other similar-sized countries and lifeboat services have an important role to play in  reducing the loss of life at sea.

There are at least  70 independent lifeboat services in Britain and Ireland but the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), the largest charity that saves lives at sea around the coasts of the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, owns and operates the majority of lifeboat stations. Founded in 1824 as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck it has saved 140,000 lives with more than 600 lives lost in service. In 2015 lifeboat crews, which consist of mostly unpaid volunteers, rescued on average 22 people a day.

Growing up in the UK I was aware from an early age of the RNLI’s importance. One of my favourite programmes in the 1960s was Blue Peter (today, the longest-running children’s TV show in the world). Since it first aired in 1958 it has supported the RNLI through four fundraising appeals, which have funded 28 lifeboats at stations around the UK.

Until my trip to Rye Harbour the only major lifeboat disaster I knew of was that in the close-knit West Cornish fishing community of Mousehole (pronounced ‘Mowzel’), where the Penlee Lifeboat Solomon Browne was stationed. On the 19th of December 1981 the boat set out, with eight of Mousehole’s men, to aid the stricken cargo-carrying coaster MV Union Star. In the rescue attempt both vessels were lost with all hands; in all, sixteen people died. The loss of eight local men from the small community hit Mousehole very hard. Even the £3 million raised locally for the families of those lost at sea could not fill the gap left by the disaster. Every year, on the anniversary of the tragedy the famous Mousehole Christmas Lights are switched off for an hour in remembrance of those lost.

Walking along the top of the beach at Rye Harbour I saw a weather-beaten shed with red wreaths in the distance.

Historical Mary Stanford Lifeboat House with beach and sea in background

Wondering what they commemorated I wandered over and found a weathered Maritime Heritage Trail interpretation board from which I learnt about the RNLB Mary Stanford lifeboat tragedy for the first time. According to a Wikipedia list of lifeboat disasters in Britain and Ireland the loss of 17 crew members is the most associated with any lifeboat disaster in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Maritime Heritage Trail interpretation board: The Mary Stanford tragedy
Maritime Heritage Trail interpretation board: The Mary Stanford tragedy

The disaster was particularly tragic because of the circumstances surrounding the attempt to rescue the crew of the small Latvian steamer Alice of Riga, which had collided with the larger German Vessel Smyrna.

Wreath and Poems on Shed Doors
Wreath and Poems on Shed Doors

Though the maroons2 were fired just after 5 am, the wind speeds were so high that it was difficult to even stand up and the crew members had to cover 1 ½ miles into the face of the wind and rain to get to the Boathouse on the shore. By the time they arrived it was practically low tide and three attempts were needed to get the boat away at 6.45 am, as daylight began to break. Only five minutes later Rye Coastguard received a message originally received by Ramsgate Coastguard Station at 6.12 am, saying the Smyrna had rescued the crew of the Alice of Riga. Because it was not a ‘life saving message’ it was not considered a high priority for transmission, a situation worsened by a further delay in sending the recall to Rye Coastguard due to an unsuccessful attempt to call Dungeness via Lydd.

Frantic efforts by the Signalman to recall the Lifeboat were fruitless. There was no boat-to-shore radio and the blinding spray and driving rain meant the recall flares weren’t seen by the lifeboat. At around 9.00 am the lifeboat was seen upright 3 miles (approx. 5 km) WSW from Dungeness. It was later reported that a sighting from Camber at 10.30 am suggested the lifeboat had capsized; by 12 noon this was confirmed when the lifeboat was seen upside-down floating towards the shore.

Within ten minutes Rye Harbour Coastguard was informed and maroons were fired to assemble the launchers. It is said that over 100 men were rushed to the shore where the upturned lifeboat lay, and extensive efforts were made to revive the bodies washed ashore. 15 bodies of the crew were washed up over the next two hours; Henry Cutting’s body was washed ashore at Eastbourne three months later; John Head’s was never found.

According to the Friday 16 November 1928 edition of the Western Times, the disaster wiped out practically the whole male population of Rye harbour. Three members (father and two sons) of the Head family and three members of the Cutting family were on board.

As I tried to imagine how a small coastal community copes in a situation like that I recalled an experience from my youth. Growing up, many of my family holidays were spent on different parts of the UK coast, exploring cliffs and rock pools. When I was 11 we visited my aunt and uncle in the small fishing village of Port Seton, outside Edinburgh, where my uncle was a fisherman for many years.

An abiding memory is of a Sunday evening service at a local church, the roof and supporting rafters resembling an upturned timber boat, and the singing of the hymn Eternal Father, Strong to Save (I’d always assumed it was entitled For Those in Peril on the Sea!3). I’ve never experienced a congregation sing a hymn with such feeling – not surprising when loved ones were at the mercy of the elements each time they went out in their small boats.

Slowly settling back into life in the UK

Since moving back to the UK at the end of 2014 after 15 years away I’ve been settling back in London in a flat I bought back in 1994. Thank goodness I kept hold of it; given the earning potential of jobs  now available to me I wouldn’t have a chance of purchasing a property of any sort in London these days. I can only imagine how hard it is for youngsters trying to get onto the property ladder these days!

It’s great being close to friends and family again, along with  opportunities to revisit favourite places and explore the UK more. However, its proving difficult to adapt to changes that have occurred while I’ve been away. Limited job opportunities, a changing political landscape, growing inequality across society, government red tape etc. are all proving obstacles to feeling settled.

The part of London I grew up in allowed easy access to parts of the Metropolitan Green Belt, formally proposed in 1935, “to provide a reserve supply of public open spaces and of recreational areas and to establish a green belt or girdle of open space”. There’s still plenty Green Belt of accessible from where I live, but unfortunately it may be vulnerable  with research showing that politicians are allowing much-loved and well-used land to come under threat from development. Alternative brownfield sites are available but I guess prospective developers don’t see themselves making as much profit with such sites!

While overseas I managed to get back home to visit family and friends every few years. In the last few visits the large number of flats being built across London has been very obvious; in the immediate vicinity of my flat there’s been a lot of recent development including blocks of student accommodation.

Hale End Village
Commercial and residential development at Hale End Village
van and flats
Residential development on opposite side of canal to proposed development

Most of the development is limited to around 8 – 10 storeys but there is a current proposal that has been submitted that will see  the demolishing of existing structures over the road from the estate I live on and alongside the canal running past my flat.  In their place blocks of primarily residential accommodation, ranging from 4 to 21 storeys and providing up to 502 dwellings, would be built.

Existing restaurant and function centre. It will be demolished to make way for the new development.

The 10 storey buildings are already quite imposing in the context of the surrounding areas and skyline. 21 storey towers will take this to a new level creating more shadows and obstructions of views, while the extra residences and accompanying parking and roading will put additional strain on infrastructure that is already creaking under the weight of road and tube/rail users.

The area to the right of the canal will be redeveloped

The existing area may not be paradise but despite the completely rosy picture the developers try to paint regarding impacts there are bound to be impacts on the local ecosystems. With the huge number of flats and supporting infrastructure being constructed in London the sentiments expressed in Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi lyrics come to mind.

To try and give myself a better work-life balance I’m getting to meet new people and travel further afield by pursuing my interest in birdwatching, rekindled in New York (2010 – 14), and wider interests in the natural environment. Local groups such as the Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group (Wren website) and the North East London and Havering Local Groups of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) offer trips that allow me to build up my natural history knowledge and meet people with similar interests while visiting locations that are often new to me. The trips are also throwing up some unexpected surprises unrelated to birdwatching, which I’ll be posting on in the future.