Humpback Throwback

There have been sightings of a humpback whale on the Northumberland Coast recently, which is very exciting. The animal is not too close to the shore and seems to be feeding and behaving normally, which is a good sign that it is not going to beach itself, so fingers crossed that it is ok. The exact location of the sightings is being kept a closely guarded secret by the wildlife groups monitoring the whale, and rightly so. With current lockdown measures here in the UK, only essential journeys are allowed so any visiting would-be whale watchers are being discouraged.

All this brought back memories of a wonderful trip to California some years back. One of the highlights of our trip was a boat trip in Monterey Bay to watch the humpback whales. Today I’ve been looking at the photographs I took at the time.

The first thing you’d see as a whale surfaced would be a puff of white spray from the blowhole

Then a huge dark shape would appear, rolling back under the waves.

Sometimes as the whale dived, its massive tail fluke would become visible

Sometimes we were close enough to hear and smell the whale’s breath and feel the spray.

On a couple of occasions (sadly not caught on camera) a whale completely breached and leapt clear of the water, which was incredibly spectacular. It was such a privilege to see these magnificent creatures at such close quarters – and now one is visiting my part of the world!

New Year Resolutions: Looking Back and Looking Forward

The turn of the year is an opportunity to review those resolutions from a year ago and make new ones. Who could have predicted what 2020 would become?

At the beginning of the year my blog was only a couple of months old. I was creating content every day and that was mostly knitting related. I’d started it as part of my plan to learn a new skill every year. I set some knitting and crafting New Year resolutions last January

  1. Make a Santa hat. I completed this last January, though I had fewer occasions to use it with no choir or ukelele gigs this Christmas. I never knitted a Bah Humbug version for K (who I described at the time as my personal Grinch). Maybe this year?

2. Knit a Christmas Jumper. I cast this on in April when the Pandemic had taken hold and it became my lockdown project. I bought the yarn online and remember quarantining the parcel for 72 hours before I opened it. I stopped knitting altogether at times but finally completed it in late August. I’ve loved wearing it this Christmas.

3. Keep on stash-busting. I had set out to use scraps of blue and grey yarn to make a cape/poncho but it didn’t workout. I pulled it out and redesigned it as a jacket which I finally finished a couple of days ago! This has made a smaller impression on the blue and grey parts of the stash than I’d hoped. I need to think about a project that will use another part of the stash.

The other craft materials I’ve accumulated got used too. Quilting fabric was made into masks and I used seaglass to make mosaic coasters and Christmas baubles. I made pheasant feather baubles too, and driftwood candle-shades, wax melts….

I still have piles of material in the craft room, so the stash-busting is ongoing.

4. Finish as many UFOs (Unfinished Objects) as I can . I completed a piece of tapestry during lockdown, which suited my state of mind at the time. Now it’s finished I’m not sure what to do with it as I don’t like it enough to frame or make into a cushion. I also finished a cobwebby scarf, a needlefelted unicorn from a kit among other things. There are still more projects to finish but I’m getting there.

5. Tidy up the craft room. This is ongoing and very much linked to 3 and 4 but at least I don’t have to share it with Son’s drum kit, which has been sold. he’s more of a guitarist these days.

6. Get out more – with my knitting. I had resolved to spend more time sitting in a car with a nice view while K walked the dog, but as lockdown began and there were no essential journeys allowed, driving to the beach stopped – later it was hard to get anywhere near as more and more tourists arrived in the area. I did get out more on my scooter for local dog walks and that reconnected me with nature, particularly wildflowers, and I started regular Wildflower of the Week posts on the blog. As Summer turned into Autumn the blackberries and sloes ripened and I got into preserving and making fruit gin liqueurs.

7. Improve my photography. I began using lenses that clip on to my mobile phone, including a macro lens for close ups of flowers. I also use tripods and remote shutter controls so my pictures are sharper. Still lots of room for improvement though!

8. Learn brioche. This was achieved when I made hand warmers, both 2 and one-coloured versions. I love the soft squishy feel of brioche stitch.

Of course I did other stuff this year. I have learnt a new skill : spinning yarn since I got an e-spinner for my birthday – with more equipment for Christmas I think this will take up a lot of crafting time in 2021, especially with all the gorgeous alpaca fibre I’ve been given.

So here’s my list of crafty intentions for 2021 – they deliberately include more of the same ongoing items, and some new ones.

  1. Make a Bah Humbug hat for K (like a Santa hat but in black).
  2. Continue stash-busting, including another big project, to be decided.
  3. Finish more unfinished projects
  4. Continue to sort and tidy the craft room
  5. Continue spinning, including a jumper for myself
  6. Get out more to knit if and when I can
  7. Keep improving the photography
  8. Learn how to dye yarn and fibre (this could be my new skill for 2021)
  9. Use natural fibres and upcycle/resuse/recycle wherever possible

I think that’s enough to be going on with!

Finally, a very Happy New Year to everyone who reads this. We got through 2020 and what it threw at us so we are well equipped to deal with anything this year sends our way. I remain hopeful that things will improve with the rapid rollout of vaccines. Here’s to a safer, calmer 2021.

Have you made any New Year resolutions?

A Woodland Ride in Autumn

Yesterday Buddy the Labrador and I joined Daughter when she went riding in Swarland Woods. There are some lovely trails through this mixed woodland, which skirts a golf course.

There is an avenue of horse chestnut trees, which are currently dropping their fruit (conkers). There were plenty of shells but none of the smooth brown conkers they protect. Maybe people had collected them. Apparently if you put piles of conkers around your home they deter spiders. When I was a child we played the game of conkers. This involved drilling a hole in the conker and threading it onto a knotted string. Players would take turns flicking their conker at that of their opponent until theirs shattered. There were all sorts of tricks like pickling your conkers in vinegar to harden them.

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The beautiful fan-shaped leaves of the horse chestnut are just beginning to turn gold for autumn.

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There were plenty of ripe blackberries, but I didn’t stop to pick any or I’d have been left behind by dog and horse! My scooter keeps up ok, but not if Misty breaks into a trot!

There were other berries on show like these glowing red ones on the guelder rose….

…and the startling white fruits of the snowberry, an introduced non-native species. Neither plant’s berries are edible by humans, though are a good food source for birds.

I also saw this beautiful devil’s bit scabious. There are fewer wildflowers about as autumn sets in so this is a welcome splash of colour.

Misty is quite happy with Buddy walking by her side.

As we were almost back at the stables Misty neighed loudly at her two friends and they answered her. They seemed really glad to see us when we got back and posed for pictures.

Of course Misty had to pose too!

What a lovely afternoon we had!

Buddleia and Butterflies

We have a buddleia outside our dining room window and the sunshine this week has brought the butterflies out to bask while they drink from the nectar-rich blooms. K went out to take some photos.

The first one he saw was this red admiral.

Then it was joined by a small tortoiseshell……

….and another.

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It’s lovely that two of our most common butterfly species are also among our most colourful.

The plant self-seeded and is not in a great position to be honest, but I’m reluctant to remove it when the butterflies love it so much and I enjoy watching them from the window. It will get cut right back, almost to ground level, after the flowers have finished. The common name of Butterfly Bush is very appropriate!

Have you had any interesting wildlife visitors to your garden recently?

BackTo Knitting With A View

One of my favourite things to do is drive to the beach and sit with my knitting while K takes the dog for a walk. It’s been a while. The beach is just too far to walk to from home so when lockdown began we stuck to dog walks round the village. Then when the restrictions were lifted the world and his wife seemed to arrive in Northumberland for a staycation. The coast was basically full! The surge in domestic tourism has helped the local economy and kept our local hospitality industry going which is great, but now the school term has begun and many of the holiday makers have gone it’s lovely to reclaim our beaches.

Today we went to Sugar Sands. It’s a bit off the beaten track and getting there involves a gated single-track road through a farm (with an honesty box – you pay £1 to park by the beach and it all goes to local church funds.) It’s been one of the few places we’ve been able to park on the coast, until August Bank Holiday, when it appeared on a list of “Britains’s top secret beaches” somewhere and got overrun. There were still quite a few people about but as you can see there was nobody sat on the beach.

The parking area is at the top of a steep bank , so the view over the beach and out to sea is wonderful. It was such a beautiful day, if a bit breezy, and the sea was the most brilliant blue.

There were still some sand martins about (they nest in holes in the bank). Some tiny wading birds (sanderling I think) were trotting about the shoreline like clockwork toys. A pair of gannets were hunting quite close to shore, unmistakable when they turned into the sun to show pure white plumage and black tips to those long straight wings. They would soar to gain height then fold their wings and plummet into the water with a splash, catching small fish with that dagger beak. It’s always spectacular to watch.

I love to knit with a view. Do you have a favourite knitting spot?

Wildflower of the Week: Honeysuckle

The Common Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)is a vigorous perennial climber, that twines itself around hedgerow plants, shrubs and trees to a height of up to 7m.

Clusters of finger-like pink-red buds open into exotic creamy yellow blooms, tinged with pink and red. These appear from June to September and have a strong sweet fragrance, especially at night when the flowers open. The dark red-brown stems carry oval, pointed leaves in pairs and the flowers form at the shoot tips. They are tubular with upper and lower lips. These are followed by clusters of berries.

It is one of many species and cultivated garden varieties, including the very invasive Japanese Honeysuckle. The Common Honeysuckle is however a useful plant to both man and wildlife.The flowers provide a rich source of nectar for insects, especially bees, butterflies. Night-flying moths, attracted by the scent, in turn attract bats to prey on them. The tangle of growth provides valuable nesting cover and the bark strips away from the mature stems providing nesting material for several bird species and also for dormice. The berries provide food for many bird species, though are toxic to humans.

The honeysuckle is named for the custom of picking the blooms and sucking the honey-like nectar, but it has a number of other names, including woodbine, eglantine, fairy trumpets, sweet suckle, goats leaf and trumpet flowers. Shakespeare mentions it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle gently entwist…

Honeysuckle was said to protect against evil and, when grown around the door of a house, would prevent a witch from entering. The plant is said to symbolise loving affection and faithfulness and wearing it would make someone dream of their true love and bring luck in courtship. The Victorians were less approving, and forbade young girls from bringing the flowers into the home, believing that it would give them unsuitably erotic dreams!

The plant has many uses. Tree branches will take on a twisted form when honeysuckle entwines around it, making an interesting shape for carved walking sticks. The flowers are used in pot pour and perfumes and also to add a sweet honey flavour to jams and jellies, teas, country wines and flavoured liqueurs and gin.

in folk medicine it has been used to make a soothing remedy for coughs and sore throats, and to heal woulds and infections.. It is said to have anti-imflammatory properties, though these are as yet unproven.

At this time of year, honeysuckle provides a colourful and fragrant addition to our hedgerows and woodlands.

August Wildlife Walk

During this crazy year, when time has either been standing still or passing us by, it’s quite reassuring to go for a walk and see the passing of the seasons. Whatever else happens, the wild plants still come into flower around the right time and the swallows migrate here. The farm year continues too and we see fields change as crops grow and reach harvest and spring lambs grow bigger.

Today I took my usual walk near the village and the first thing I spotted was that some of the meadows have been cut – the warm wet weather has really encouraged grass growth and hay and silage making.

The oilseed rape crop is ripening. The acid yellow flowers of spring have now been replaced by brown stems and seed pods.

The grain crops are ripening fast and combining has already begun in some places. This barley still has a greenish tinge. I love to watch it swirl about and ripple in the breeze.

The verges and hedgerows are now a dustier, darker green, with the creamy grass seed heads, thistledown and meadowsweet flowers and accents of purple from thistles, knapweed, meadow cranesbill and woundwort.

Purple Knapweed and Milk Thistle (top right) with creamy Meadowsweet (bottom right)
The brilliant blue-purple flowers of Meadow Cranesbill

The most dominant birdsong I heard today was that of the yellowhammer: a rising sequence of notes followed by a single, lower, longer one. They seemed to follow me and every so often I’d catch a glimpse of one on top of a hedge.

There were lots of butterflies today, mainly whites, including green-veined whites and also small tortoiseshells and red admirals. I also saw this beautiful pale moth – so far I can’t identify it.

As we turned, a roebuck crossed by the bridge. They are very common round here, but mostly keep themselves well hidden in woodland, especially during summer, so it was lovely to see one.

What aspects of nature characterise this time of year where you live?

Wildflower Of The Week: Hogweed

Wildflower of the Week is back on the blog with Hogweed, that has taken over from Cow Parsley as the dominant large wildflower of our hedgerows and road verges. Both are umbellifers, with white, umbrella-shaped flower heads, but Hogweed’s flowers are a creamier shade, sometimes tinged with pink, and the whole plant is sturdier.

Cow Parsley (left) is a much more delicate plant with frothy pure white flowers; Hogweed (right) has creamier flowers and is a much sturdier plant.

Hogweed, also known as Cow Parsnip or Eltrot, is a biennial or perennial plant and grows to 2m high. The shoots and flower buds are covered in a leafy sheath when they emerge, opening to reveal a rosette of large, divided hairy leaves.

The flowers are carried on hollow hairy stems. They are rich in nectar and pollinated by insects. They have a rather unpleasant “farmyards” smell, possibly a reason for the hogweed name. The outer petals of the flower cluster tend to be larger. The flowers are followed by flat disc-shaped seeds.

The plant has been used in folk medicine as a sedative and an expectorant … in parts of Eastern Europe it was also traditionally used to treat gynaecological and fertility problems and impotence. Foragers pick the young shoots to cook as a vegetable, reporting it to be tasty and rich in minerals. The dried seeds can be used as a flavouring said to resemble that of cardamon. All however advise extreme caution for a a couple of reasons. First of all the young shoots are hard to identify when the leaves are not fully open so it is easy to confuse the plant with similar looking and extremely poisonous members of the same plant family. Secondly, hogweed sap contains chemicals called furanocoumarins. If you get these chemicals on the skin it becomes highly sensitive to UV light and develops blisters that may leave severe scarring. Foragers advise the use of gloves when collecting hogweed. People using a strimmer to cut down hogweed have reported getting the rash of blisters even through clothing and appear to have been sprayed with the sap. Scything (using a well-sharpened blade) is seen as safer, producing a cleaner cut rather than pulverising the stems.

Cases of skin blistering around the mouth have been reported in children using the hollow stems as pea shooters – to be discouraged!

The hogweed’s big brother, the non-native Giant Hogweed, which grows to 5m, has higher concentrations of the irritant chemicals and should be avoided at all costs. Classified as an “invasive alien’ under the WildLife and Countryside Act, it is an offence to cause Giant Hogweed to grow in the wild – landowners may be compelled to remove it from infested areas or face penalties.

This all makes me rather relieved that our area is populated by the smaller, native version!

Is your neighbourhood troubled by any invasive species?

NB Always follow these guidelines when foraging

  • Don’t touch or pick any plant unless you are ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that it is safe to use, and not poisonous.
  • Don’t pick anything unless it is abundant
  • Only pick small amounts and no more than you need
  • Don’t pick if there is a risk of pesticide/weedkiller or other contamination, including from traffic or other forms of pollution.
  • Always get permission from the landowner.
  • Avoid areas which may be soiled by animals (wild or farm animals or pets)
  • Wash plants thoroughly

An Unexpected Visitor

The weirdest thing happened today. We got some beautiful flowers sent from some dear friends for our wedding anniversary the other week, but alas they were ready for the compost bin today. As K went to pick up the vase to dispose of the flowers he noticed what he first thought was a dead leaf from the bouquet that had fallen into the empty glass vase next to it. It was actually a BAT!!!!. We couldn[t believe our eyes. We can only think that the unfortunate creature had flown in last night when the back door was open when the dog was in the garden and somehow got trapped in the vase. It’s a pipistrelle – our smallest and commonest bat species.

We took it outside and worked out that it was probably dehydrated after its ordeal. so K tried offering it some water from a teaspoon, which it lapped up.

It had crawled into a corner between some bin bags of garden waste ready to go to the tip.

After it’s drink the bat really perked up and crawled around the patio, then started to climb up the wall.

Unfortunately it fell off but seemed ok and crawled behind a flower pot. We are hoping it’s ok and just resting until nightfall.

Many years ago we used to volunteer to support our local licensed bat expert, monitoring roosts. He usually had at least one sick or injured bat being nursed back to health so K and I had seen these amazing creatures close up before, but son and daughter hadn’t and they were both fascinated too. It was such a privilege to see our little visitor. I’m just waiting to see if it gets active again at dusk.

Do you get any interesting wildlife in your garden?

UPDATE: We went to check on the little bat after it went dark and I’m pleased to report that it’s gone – hopefully back to lead a normal life!

Wildflower of the Week: Red campion.

It’s impossible to miss the tall clumps of pink-red flowers of red campion that are growing in profusion in hedgerows and woods at the moment and will continue to do so until August and well into Autumn and Winter if the weather is mild. This relative of the carnation is a short-lived perennial that produces copious seed that enables it to spread rapidly , especially in fertile soils.

The plant grows up to a metre tall, though usually 30-60cm high. with leaves and stems covered in softly downy hairs. The leaves are pointed oval in shape, carried in pairs on the stems.

The flowers carried in small groups at the end of the stems. Each has five petals and each petal has a central cleft. the calyx immediately behind the flower is dark red/brown and hairy. The plant is dioecious, that is a single plant carries flowers with either female or male parts, not both as in most flower species. On the female plants the calyx develops into a vase-shaped seed capsule full of tiny black seeds. The female flower produces a sticky substance that causes pollen from visiting insects to stick. The Latin name for the campion family, Silene, may come from the woodland god Silenus or from the word for saliva.

The red campion hybridises freely with the closely related white campion with resulting flowers in a wide range of shades of pink. Though I’ve never noticed this, you may come across flowers with a darker centre. This is caused by a fungal disease known as anther smut, producing dark spores on the reproductive parts of the plant

The plant is sometimes called the Adder Flower from it’s use in folk medicine to treat snakebites (though personally if I was in this situation I would prefer to seek professional medical advice immediately rather than take my chances with the plant!) The roots of plants in the campion family can be used to prepare a soap substitute, though the red campion is less known for this than it’s close relative, soapwort. The 16th Century herbalist, John Gerard said that the hairy stems could be used to make candle wicks. A century later, Nicholas Culpepper described a number of medical uses including the treatment of kidney stones and internal bleeding as well as to “helpeth those that are stung by scorpions or other venomous beasts”.

Another country name is Batchelor’s Buttons as unmarried young men would wear the flower in a buttonhole..

Red campion certainly provides a welcome splash of colour in late spring and throughout the summer.

As always, please remember these guidelines.

  • Don’t touch or pick any plant unless you are ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that it is safe to use, and not poisonous.
  • Don’t pick anything unless it is abundant
  • Only pick small amounts and no more than you need
  • Don’t pick if there is a risk of pesticide/weedkiller or other contamination, including from traffic or other forms of pollution.
  • Always get permission from the landowner.
  • Avoid areas which may be soiled by animals (wild or farm animals or pets)
  • Wash plants thoroughly