Happy as a clam… South Pacific Adventure, part 4

Meitaki atupaka: thank you very muchThe sun smiled on Martin and myself as we headed off on our Sunday-afternoon scooter tour of Aitutaki. We passed very few other people on our circuit of the island: Sunday is very much a day of rest here, so apart from the odd local going fishing everyone seemed to be either in church or at home.

Examples of sea shells, Aitutaki Marine Research Centre

 

Our first port of call was the Aitutaki Marine Research Centre at the northern tip of the island. This grand title sounds impressive, although once you get there it’s basically some big round tanks full of seawater under a netting canopy, which are full of native clams Tridacna maxima (called pāua in Cook islands Maori).

Tridacna maxima clams in breeding tank

Aka the ‘small giant clam’, these pāua have been classified as a conservation-dependent species; which basically means that they will probably be wiped out by over-collecting and pollution, unless their long term future is safeguarded by active conservation measures. On Aitutaki, this takes the form of cultivating baby clams in these tanks, on square slabs on concrete. Once the clams are big enough, these slabs are taken out to sea and placed in a ‘clam nursery’ in the island’s lagoon.

Baby paua clams in nursery tank

These clams do not rival their bigger cousins, the introduced species of giant clam Tridacna gigas, also found in the surrounding ocean: typically pāua grow to a maximum size of 20 centimetres. But they have traditionally been a much-prized food source to locals, and lately have also become the target of the aquarium trade, because of their gorgeously-coloured and patterned mantles. This amazing colouration is caused by the presence of tiny single-celled algae in the clam’s mantle – plants which produce food by photosynthesis, supplementing the clam’s filter feeding process.

Pāua were once abundant in the reefs and lagoons of the Cook Islands. Nowadays, if you want to find these little clams offshore around the more populated and tourist-visited islands such as Rarotonga and Aitutaki you have to look very hard. I did discover one whilst swimming off the beach at Vaikoa (see photo below)… But when I reported this back to Mama she said that she and her family would go fishing for the pāua if they knew it was there! Mama originally came to Aitutaki from Kiribati (a group of Pacific islands which were a UK colony until 1979). Her husband chose the land at Vaikoa and taught her to fish, because he said he wanted her to be able to survive in old age from being able to find her own food. I sympathise with this: as ever, it’s the complicated issue of the needs of local people being balanced against the ability of the local ecosystem to tolerate the demands being placed upon it. As a wildlife conservationist I was firmly in the little clam’s corner, but at the very least I feel local people should be involved in decision-making; and they should also be paid to carry out the conservation work to preserve these beautiful creatures.

Wild paua clam in Aitutaki lagoon

After seeing the clams we continued our tour: via Vaipeka to view the ginormous fig tree that spans across the road (see my photo at the end of the last chapter of this blog); past Neibaa’s grocery store (the only one on the island which stays open on Sundays); and on down to Vaipae wharf, where Martin sets out for his lagoon fishing trips with local friend Itu.

Vaipae shore with reef heron, Aitutaki

This eastern shore of the mainland of Aitutaki is very different to the western side where I was staying at Vaikoa. A mud and sand beach stretches out shallowly into the lagoon, looking across towards the islets that fringe it and the island’s popular northeastern-most finger of land, O’otu. In Cook islands Maori, o’otu means “to burn” or “to cook”: I wondered wryly if all the white tourists sunbathing on the gorgeous white sand lagoon beaches there knew that. Martin commented that he rarely goes to that part of Aitutaki, because it harbours legions of mosquitoes. (They breed in the little pools of water trapped in the leaves of pandanus trees Pandanus arapepe, which grow in that part of the island.)

Thank you sign at Vaipae, Aitutaki

A sign on some trees at Vaipae gave me the chance to have another local language lesson. Meitaki is Cook Islands generic Maori for “Thank you”, but each island has its own language variant for “Thank you very much”: here in Aitutaki it is meitaki atupaka. I loved the sound of Maori and did my best to learn a few phrases beyond the ubiquitous kia orana (“May you live long”, the Cook Islands equivalent to “Hi there, cool to see ya”)… But it’s definitely a language that takes time and much practice to acquire. I’m of the opinion that if you travel in other people’s home countries it’s both respectful and fun to try to communicate with the locals at least a little in their own language. Whether I actually make myself understood or just make them laugh isn’t really a big deal.

Mangrove fiddler crab (Uca crassipes) at Vaipae, Aitutaki

All over the beach at Vaipae there were little tracks and spherical balls of sand, interspersed with small round holes tunneling down into the ground. These it turned out had been made by Narrow-fronted fiddler crabs (Uca tetragonon), local name koro’iti. The males of this characterful little crab species sport a garish large pink claw which they flourish to impress their lady-crab friends. Allegedly. Personally I think any male waving something that flamboyantly pink around might be secretly getting in touch with his own feminine side, which can only be a good thing.

Sunset at Vaikoa, Aitutaki

We concluded our clockwise island scooter tour by swinging by Tautu wharf and back through Arutanga and past Ziona Tapu church, on so onward back home to Vaikoa… Where Mama kindly greeted us with a cup of tea and some banana cake, to celebrate Father’s Day, for Martin! Later we made sure we also observed the important ritual of Beer O’Clock on Martin’s beach hut verandah, where a typically stunning sunset put the finishing touch on what had been a rather wonderful Sunday.

Coconut husking at Vaikoa, Aitutaki

After my day of rest, it was high time I did something useful: so on the following day Martin gave me a lesson in the art of coconut husking and making coconut cream. Firstly, you find a ripe coconut (or ariki). This is never difficult as they are lying on the ground all over the place, and no-one minds if you help yourself to one. Next, you use a metal or wooden spike that’s firmly fixed in the ground to prise off the coconut’s hairy brown husk.

Draining coconut milk

Once husked, you pierce the coconut through two or three of its eyes (using that otherwise pointless sharp poky tool thing on your trusty Swiss army knife), and upend it over a glass to drain out the coconut’s sweet fruity water. Drink this yummy juice (with or without the addition of rum).

Opening a coconut, Cook Islands style

Take a machete that Crocodile Dundee would approve of, and very carefully use the back of it (i.e. the blunt edge) to strike the coconut smartly on its equator. A few hits like this, rotating the coconut between each blow, will crack it more or less neatly in half.

Homemade coconut grater

The next bit of hi-tech you’ll need is a coconut grater: traditionally they are made from sea shell, but this recycled door hinge screwed onto a bit of plank does the job.

Grating coconut, at Vaikoa

Grate the coconut’s flesh from the shell, starting at the coconut’s top outer edge, then working your way gradually round and into the shell until you’re nearly down to the husk (when you’re done you can ingratiate yourself with the local chickens by giving the husk to them to feast on). Collect the grated coconut flesh in a clean cloth placed below.

Freshly-grated coconut

Once you’ve filled your clean cloth with grated coconut, you simply twist it up to squeeze out the coconut cream.

Squeezing freshly-grated coconut to make coconut cream

Coconut cream is yummy and unctuous and all things good. It goes beautifully with banana, pawpaw, pineapple, mango or other tropical fruits; or added to curries and stews. The leftover grated coconut is nice with your breakfast cereal – or in jam sandwiches!

Puna's boat, lagoon trip, Aitutaki

Sadly Martin left Aitutaki the following morning (although with the typical generosity of everyone I met while travelling, he insisted on leaving all his leftover food provisions with me). I serenaded him on his way with a traditional Celtic blessing song; then after breakfast it was time to head off on a long-anticipated lagoon trip.

I joined six other tourists (five Kiwis and a German lady) on the funky little Aitutaki Adventures boat, whose skipper is Puna: an enthusiastic and upbeat local whose knowledge of Aitutaki and its marine wildlife is excellent.

The blue lagoon... Aitutaki, looking towards Maina

Travelling in a boat at sea almost always fills me with happiness, so I was already feeling uplifted as we headed out from Tautu wharf into the lagoon… But once we got a little way out to sea I was pretty much blubbing over how beautiful the lagoon was. Imagine the bluest thing you’ve ever seen, then times that by a thousand. Absolutely stunning.

Giant trevally, Aitutaki lagoon

Puna motored out to close by the motu named Maina, where we jumped over the side of the boat for our first bit of lagoon snorkelling. Our first marine wildlife encounter was with a giant trevally (Caranx ignobilis), a fish that was approximately as long as me. It swam around the boat and those of us snorkelling in the water for quite some time, occasionally eyeing us in a manner that suggested it was assessing our edibility. This seemed only fair: many of these magnificent fish are caught by tourists and end up as someone’s dinner. Giant clams (Tridacna gigas), Aitutaki lagoonBeing large was a bit of a theme here: I also swam over some giant clams (the non-native species, Tridacna gigas), which were similarly gargantuan.

Sandbar in Aitutaki lagoon, looking towards One Foot Island

Right next to Maina is a beautiful sandbar which has been named (rather unoriginally) ‘Honeymoon Island’ by tourists. Its pink-white sand and turquoise sea are stunning to look at though.Black noddies, Maina sandbar, Aitutaki

It’s not just fish that use the lagoon: we saw turtles as we travelled out from the mainland, and here on the sandback many birds use it and Maina as a refuge. I walked past a couple of ngōio, black noddies (Anous minutus) who seemed pretty unruffled by a handful of trespassing tourists. This motu is also home to the rare Red-tailed tropicbird or tavake (Phaethon rubricauda), and we saw a few of these flying with terns.A real desert isalnd: Maini, Aitutaki lagoon

Beautiful though Aitutaki lagoon is, you realise as soon as you visit these little motu up close what a difficult environment it is for wildlife to survive in. The sand was almost too hot to walk on barefoot; there is no fresh water (other than rainfall), and tropical storms can whip the sea over these low-lying islands and snap off coconut palms.Marooned on a sandbar, Aitutaki lagoon

No Pacific ocean voyage though would be complete without being marooned on a desert island… So Puna headed further across the lagoon, before leaving those of us who were up for the challenge on a sandbar. From there we were able to wade/walk to Tapuaeta’i (One Foot Island), our lunch time stop.Tapuaeta'i (One Foot Island), Aitutaki

Tapuaeta’i is the motu that all tourist lagoon trips go to (and you can even get a foot-shaped stamp in your passport there), but Puna’s Aitutaki Adventures trips in his small boat mean you get a bit of space to yourself. You also get a mouth-wateringly delicious lunch, which was waiting for us on a nice secluded and shady deck. I unashamedly gorged myself: four kinds of salads; pawpaw; fried aubergine, onion, pumpkin and courgette; savoury rice with carrots and beans; and grilled mahi mahi fish (dorado, Coryphaena hippurus) which literally melted in my mouth. I should also mention that before this paradisical feast, there were fresh bananas and watermelons and doughnuts served out to us on the boat, after we’d been snorkelling… Presumably in case we grew faint from hunger before our sumptuous lunch. And all washed down with Puna’s chilled ‘fruit squash’ made from fresh lemons, a glorious citrusy zingy hit.Puna of Aitutaki Adventures... A top geezer

After lunch Puna entertained us by relating stories of the time the TV series Survivor! was being filmed on Aitutaki’s lagoon motu in 2006. The TV crew took over all accommodation on the island for three months, created a new channel at Tautu wharf, and generally made a good impression on the locals. Puna got a chopper ride over Aitutaki’s lagoon which he loved, and spent a lot of time with the series producer, who was very interested in local history and culture.

Puna himself is a cool dude. He spent five years working up on the island of Manihiki in the northern group of the Cook Islands. Manihiki, also known as ‘island of pearls’, is over eight hundred miles north of Rarotonga: about as remote as you can get in the South Pacific. Puna said five years was as long as he could cope with living there, working on the pearl trade. Most of the technicians there are Japanese, some from as young twelve years old learning the delicate science of seeding pearls in oysters. This craft is passed on within families and not shared with outsiders. Apparently these Japanese pearl technicians can tell what type of pearl an oyster will produce simply by looking at its shell – i.e. black, green, white, gold… Manihiki pearls are often black or green.Small wrasse species, Aitutaki lagoon

After we’d digested lunch Puna took us in the boat to another area of the lagoon to get a last bit of snorkelling in, before the dark rain clouds which a north-westerly wind had fetched on the horizon reached us. All kinds of brightly-coloured fish darted about over the coral: wrasse, butterfly fish, the inevitable Picasso triggerfish and humbug damsels, and the electric blue starfish that were a common coral reef denizen here.

Giant moray eel (Gymnothorax javanicus), Aitutaki lagoon

Another creature caught my eye, lurking under the edge of one of the coral bommies we were snorkelling around. I swam down for a closer look, then put on the brakes: it was a giant moray eel (Gymnothorax javanicus). Torn between wanting to ogle this amazing predatory fish up close, and vaguely remembering that moray eels are reputed to be somewhat grumpy, I hovered a couple of feet from it… Whereupon it slowly turned its head and gazed steadily at me like a malignant marine sock puppet. Unlike a sock puppet however it appeared to be armed with a mouthful of stubby sharp fangs. I considered my options, and decided to give the moray some space. Subsequent research confirmed that I made the right decision: the giant moray grows to three metres long, and most definitely does not fall into the cuddly sock puppet category. (Wikipedia helpfully comments, “This species may be hazardous to people… It has been implicated in provoked and unprovoked attacks on scuba divers.”)Coconut and tea time, looking west from Vaikoa (Aitutaki)

Surviving unscathed from my moray encounter, I returned to the boat… and Puna delivered us all safely back to the mainland. The threatening clouds dispersed and I was able to enjoy another lovely evening back at Vaikoa, watching the sun slide into the sea.

All good things must come to an end: and sadly it was time to move on from Vaikoa, with the lovely Mama, Junior, Terangi and Joel. I packed up my bags and walked the short distance northwards along the road, to my next temporary home: Matriki Beach Huts.Matriki Beach Huts motto: just casual!

I’d found Matriki’s website while researching lower-budget places to stay on Aitutaki, and immediately liked the sound of it: and from the moment I walked along the sandy drive I knew I was going to have a great time there. The accommodation is basic but stunningly located right on the beach: wooden beach huts with funky painted murals and little verandahs looking out over the beachfront.Beach hut mural, Matriki (Aitutaki)

I’d booked a week’s stay in the ‘Beach Hut’, which was as Robinson Crusoe as it sounds. Well kitted out (fridge, cooker, mosquito-netted comfy bed, electric lights, outdoor shower) and cosy, it was just what I’d hoped for: a basic (i.e. affordable) but stunningly-situated little shed by the sea. Not being a fan of luxury resorts (or being able to afford them either), I’d chosen to stay at Matriki because of all the nice things previous travellers said about it… And they were absolutely right.

Matriki beach hut, Aitutaki

I wasn’t the only guest at Matriki: there are two other beachfront huts (and also an option to stay in a self-contained garden unit attached to the house), but everyone has a bit of space. If you wanted to hang out with folks and barbecue or share food on the big picnic table that was an option… Or you could just chill on your deck and gaze at the sunset. I sat on my deck for a while and just drank in the view. Not for the first time, I felt incredibly fortunate and full of gratitude to be in such a beautiful place.View from the deck of the Beach Hut, Matriki (Aitutaki)

Matriki was quiet and peaceful, my first evening there. I spent the afternoon snorkelling, then had a (sun-warmed!) outdoor shower, before wandering along the beach. I didn’t pass a single soul: just a reef heron picking its long-legged way along the sea’s edge. The ever-present soft roar of surf against Aitutaki’s fringing reef underscored other sounds: mynah birds chirping and squawking; a gecko ticking; a cockerel crowing; a riffle of small fishes hurling themselves airborne as they were chased into the shallows by something bigger. I could just see the surf breaking on the reef, a rolling line of white forever uncurling on the coral’s encircling edge… And beyond, the wild indigo blue of the Pacific.

The sand still felt warm at sunset, giving softly under my feet. Scents of sea and bonfire smoke and evening cooking drifted past: frying onions, mosquito coils, something sweet. As the sun sank into low cloud it found a chink and lit up a golden path on the sea, which the heron followed as it fished in the shallows. Just eight more days, to enjoy Aitutaki.

Reef heron at sunset, Amuri beach (Matriki, Aitutaki)

Coming up next time, in South Pacific Adventure part 5:

Swimming with humpback whales; learning about Aitutaki’s history;
cat therapy; and how we survived a tsunami warning.

Coral lagoons, beer o’clock and church on Sunday… South Pacific Adventure, part 3

Avana mooring, Muri lagoon, Rarotonga

I had just two more days on Rarotonga before I moved on to my next island destination, so I made the most of my time by doing some more exploring on foot and in the sea. Just up the road north from Aremango is the small harbour of Avana, with The Mooring Café which serves awesome fish sandwiches and fresh fruit smoothies. On the way back to Aremango I bought some oranges and postcards, then wrote my cards to folks back home whilst sitting in my little garden courtyard, watching small lizards skittering about on the fence and decking and climbing from leaf to leaf, tongues flickering in and out. That left some of the evening for hammock time, watching moths fluttering about the plants, while listening to cicadas and the occasional shrill whine of a mosquito.

Aremango beach, looking to Taakoka motu, Rarotonga

The next day the weather had turned a bit unpredictable: clouds and light rain alternating with the blue skies and tropical temperatures of before. But I was determined to explore the coral lagoon and reef near Aremango, and once you’re in the sea it doesn’t really matter if it’s raining. Just offshore is the small volcanic islet or motu Taaoka: ‘taoka’ means ‘treasure’ in Maori, so this motu could be translated as ‘Treasure Island’!

Picasso triggerfish swimming in lagoon, the Cook Islands

The real treasure of the lagoon is to be found beneath the waves, of course. Despite the more choppy weather stirring up the sand and visibility not being as good as it was a couple of days ago, I’m soon face down taking my new mask and snorkel for their maiden voyage, bobbing around coral outcrops and bubbling “Oooh!” and “Aahhh!” at every new tropical marine creature I encounter. White, yellow and black threadfin butterfly fish; gaudy fat-lipped Picasso triggerfish; silver and black-striped convict surgeonfish; and of course millions of warty brown sea cucumbers littering the ocean floor, patiently sucking in and filtering food particles from the sand and excreting it in pristine whiteness.

Taaoka motu, Rarotonga

Closer to Taaoka the currents get interesting: I’m reminded of the warnings I’ve read about how dangerous it can be to swim near a reef pass (opening or gap in the reef), where water flows in from and out to the open ocean. Later on I discover that two tourists died last year swimming near Avaavaroa Passage a little further southwest. I’m not wearing fins, just reef shoes, so my ability to swim well in currents is limited: at low tide it’s shallow enough to stand in places between the shore and the motu, but the currents still pull me about. I’m determined to reach the motu though, and I finally clamber ashore.

Taaoka motu shoreline, Rarotonga

With a pale sandy beach strewn with lava rocks and leaning palm trees, Taaoka feels satisfyingly like somewhere you might get stranded. I alternate between whistling the theme from Robinson Crusoe and Desert Island Discs, as I clamber over boulders and peer into the motu’s small scrub-covered interior.

View from Taaoka motu to Rarotonga

You wouldn’t have to survive for very long if you were washed up on Taaoka, unless you were a non-swimmer: Muri’s main shore is a short swim (or wade at low tide) away. It was a satisfying exploration though; and the reef fish were bigger and more numerous out by the motu than they were close in by the main shore. I stepped back into the sea and snorkelled until my fingers went wrinkled, incidentally managing to give my back a stonking dose of sunburn (one of the not-unusual hazards of snorkelling). I should’ve known better and worn a rash vest, but I was lulled into a false sense of security by the patchy cloud and relatively cooler temperatures. The moral of this story is: the Tropics are the Tropics, and tropical sun is not to be trifled with. Cover up or suffer the consequences!

Flight from Rarotonga to Aitutaki

The next day dawned sunny and saw me catching a plane from Rarotonga airport to my next destination: Aitutaki, the northernmost of the Cook Islands Southern Group. Aitutaki had a reputation as something of a tropical paradise, and can be reached by a 45-minute flight from Raro. You can even day-trip Aitutaki if you wish, flying over in the morning and returning in the evening: but I had planned to spend a whole fortnight there. I liked the sound of the island: less developed for tourism than Raro, a simpler and slower pace of life, and plenty of good coral reefs and lagoon to snorkel in. Not to mention it was further north… so even warmer!

Flying in to Aitutaki

As the little twin-prop aircraft made its approach to Aitutaki, I got a glimpse of the island’s famed turquoise-blue lagoon. Once on the ground I was met by the family who I would be staying with for my first week on Aitutaki, at Vaikoa Units on Tamanu Beach: Terangi and Junior Tamati and their teenaged son Joel, who took me in their pick-up back to Vaikoa. Terangi then kindly ferried me on the back of her scooter down to the nearest food shop to buy some essentials like bread and cheese: on returning to the little garden unit which I was staying in, it was to find finger bananas and passion fruit freshly-picked by Mama (Terangi’s mother) in a bowl on the table. Plenty of drinking water too: rainwater stored in butts, which I could boil and then chill in my fridge!My room at Vaikoa, Aitutaki

I liked my room at Vaikoa: a nice big comfy double bed, a clean shower and loo, a little kitchenette with a cooker and fridge and table for meals, and a nice through breeze if desired (with mosquito coils burning to discourage the biting critters).

Chickens at Vaikoa, Aitutaki

Inevitably when I opened my kitchen door there were chickens outside, poised to eagerly investigate any edible scraps I might want to fling in their direction. As on Rarotonga, chickens are endemic on Aitutaki: happily scuffling about everywhere, wary of humans but susceptible to being lured with coconut. I tried a spot of chicken whispering, but this proved less successful. Coconut appears to be the secret of chicken friendship.

Vaikoa beach, Aitutaki

My priority after getting the basics of food and water sorted was of course to investigate the beach, a mere 30-second stroll away. It was heart-stoppingly beautiful: bright white sand, coconut palms and blue blue water. I sat down and gazed at it and almost burst into tears at how lovely it all was. Which may sound lame but I was starting to feel slightly overwhelmed by how incredibly fortunate I felt to be halfway around the world sitting on this utterly gorgeous tropical island.

Beer o'clock at Vaikoa, Aitutaki

Fortunately before I actually started blubbing I was hailed from the deck of a nearby beach house, and invited to take part in the important traditional ritual of Beer O’Clock by friendly Kiwi traveller Martin. As we sipped two cold ones and kept the mossies at bay, he regaled me with tales of his visits to Vaikoa (he’s been visiting and staying with Mama, Terangi, Junior and Joel for years). Back in New Zealand he volunteers on a bird conservation project at Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre. Like everyone I’d met so far on my travels, Martin was warm and sociable and happy to share tips about exploring the island. Before I left the UK I had a few people express concern and even discouragement about my plan to travel alone: but what I actually found was that travelling alone means that the people you meet tend to open up to you and take you under their wing.

Vaikoa lagoon, Aitutaki

The next morning I was back at the beach after breakfast. Vaikoa means ‘clear water’, and by wading only a few steps into the warm sea I was surrounded by corals and sea cucumbers and darting little fish.

Blue devil damselfish and humbug damsels in Vaikoa lagoon, Aitutaki

Bright Blue devil damselfish and black-and-white striped humbug damselfish drifted in small shoals around the coral, flitting away when I got too close. Wrasse and triggerfish and inevitable herds of sea cucumbers, long-spined sea urchins which I swam past carefully. I was still a little wary of this undersea world, having read my copy of The Snorkeller’s Guide To The Coral Reef carefully, especially the sections about the multitude of venomous life which can be found in coral reefs. There seem to be an awful lot of sea creatures which can bite, sting, puncture and otherwise mangle you: there are even corals which can make you sting and burn if you’re unlucky enough to brush up against them. Not to mention that treading on or knocking against corals is likely to damage the corals themselves… So a rule of thumb whilst snorkelling coral reefs is look, don’t touch.

Brain coral, Vaikoa lagoon, Aitutaki

Looking is fabulous though. I grew up on TV programmes like The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, with the voyages on their boat Calypso to explore the wonders of tropical oceans. I was also an avid fan of the children’s Japanese TV anime Marine Boy (Kaitei Shōnen Marin), spending quite a lot of time sitting on the bottom of our local swimming pool longing for the ability to breathe underwater conferred upon the eponymous hero by chewing his ‘oxy-gum’… So to be floating about in the Pacific actually looking at a coral reef was definitely a dream come true.

All this swimming gave me an appetite, which Martin helped me remedy that evening by ferrying me on the back of a scooter to the nearby Puffy’s eatery, where we ate some of the best fish and chips and salad I’m ever likely to enjoy in this lifetime. The fish was buttery and succulent and moreover went by the name of wahoo, which has to be the funkiest fish title on a menu ever. I felt as though I was in a Dr Seuss book.
“I went for a snorkel and saw fish quite a few:
And later I ate one, it was called Wahoo.”

Mama in her Sunday best, Vaikoa, Aitutaki

The next day was Sunday and Mama had arranged to take me off to church with her and Martin. I was keen to go because I’d read great things about the singing that happens in Cook Islands church congregations… Plus I was genuinely curious as to what the Christian faith meant to the locals. Mama turned up bright and early at my door in her Sunday best, and brought a hat for me to wear too.

Me ready for church, Vaikoa, Aitutaki

Feeling a little like Pollyanna I held onto my hat as Mama drove us on her scooter into Arutanga, to the CICC (Cook Islands Christian Church).Aitutaki CICC, Arutanga

Built in 1828 (and carefully restored in 2010 by locals), the CICC is the oldest Christian church in the Cook Islands. It stands near the centre of Arutanga, Aitutaki’s main village and administrative centre (it has a bank, a post office, a harbour, and a couple of stores). More metaphorically speaking, the church also stands at the centre of island life: from speaking with Mama and other locals, I gathered that the church plays a large part in most people’s lives, and has a big influence locally.

No Sunday flights sign, Aitutaki

The devoutness of some of the locals is evidenced by roadside signs denouncing the flying in of tourists to the island on Sundays: apparently Sunday flights are even sometimes picketed by locals on arrival. Coming from a largely non-religious family background, I had no particular stance on this, other than feeling the locals should have the ultimate say over what happened on their island. Personally I find the whole hell-and-brimstone approach less than appealing: if I feel inclined to kick up my heels or otherwise do stuff on a Sunday, I wouldn’t let a bunch of dogma deter me. But when in Rome etc: I’m also respectful of local culture, so if Aitutakians would like tourists to observe the sabbath then maybe that’s what we should be doing.

Inside Aitutaki CICC

Inside the church was shady and peaceful, with light falling through the mellow stained glass and a slight breeze blowing through the open windows. Usually tourists have to sit towards the back, but I was privileged to sit with Mama and Martin in the area reserved for locals from the Amuri area of the island (people sit in church according to what part of the island they hail from). The church soon filled up and the service began, with singing that was haunting and lovely in equal parts. Cook Islands Maori is rich in vowel sounds and not easy to follow or learn: Martin shared a Maori hymn book with me and I took my cue from Mama as to what harmonies I should be singing, but sometimes I just listened. Many of the hymns had a call and response pattern, with the song flowing back and forth between women and men, rising up to the white-painted ceiling with its ancient anchor.Aitutaki family graves

Although there was a cemetery at the church, most Cook Islanders usually bury their dead on family land: often close to their homes. Family graves are tended lovingly and carefully, much like the gardens themselves of Cook Islanders. Some people might find this morbid but I actually thought it was a touching custom: keeping those who’d gone close by, rather than exiling them to some fenced-off graveyard.

After many hymns and a long sermon in Maori (during which I was entertained by watching local youngsters play pranks on each other, fidgeting about on the pews) it was time to head back out into the sunshine. Mama stayed to talk with friends and relatives, but Martin and I had other plans: a Sunday afternoon scooter ride round the island, to see some of the local sights. After a quick detour back to Vaikoa to change out of my church frock and into some shorts, we set off. I wasn’t sure whether the prohibition on Sunday flights also applied to scooter rides, but as many locals were still motoring about, it seemed unlikely. Suitably attired in yet another hat and carrying my camera, we hit the open road.

Me and big fig tree at Vaipeka, Aitutaki

Coming up next time, in South Pacific Adventure part 4:

Clams fit for a king; how to say thank you on Aitutaki; coconut cookery school; and a taste of paradise. The end of my stay at Vaikoa… and moving to Matriki!

Bush medicine, cursed hotels and Rarotonga by bike… South Pacific Adventure, part 2

Storytellers eco cycle tour, Rarotonga

There were very few activities or trips I booked in advance of arriving in the South Pacific, preferring to take advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves rather than being tied down to a schedule. The one exception was booking a place on a Storytellers Eco Cycle Tour on Rarotonga, for the morning after I arrived on the island. My logic for this was that (a) I like cycling, (b) it sounded like a good way to explore the island and get an introduction to Cook Islands culture and (c) when you’re travelling solo somewhere ten thousand miles away from home, it’s quite nice to have at least one planned thing to give you a bit of structure.

Getting up at seven a.m. bleary-eyed with jet lag was a bit painful, but several mugs of tea helped revive me (as did the morning chorus provided by Rarotonga’s several million chickens). I was picked up from Aremango Guesthouse by Dave from Storytellers, who cheerily ferried me and half a dozen other tourists staying at various points around the island to the start of our tour. There we were kitted out with helmets and sturdy bikes, before getting a safety talk and introduction from tour guides Natavia and Jimmy to our 4-hour cycle trip which would take in Rarotongan agriculture, traditional uses of plants, and some Cook Islands Maori history and culture.

Typical Rarotongan planting areas

Many Rarotongans still grow a lot of their own food (this is called ‘planting’ rather than ‘farming’). Growing plots have been cleared from the bush inland for planting vegetables and fruit, with the odd grazing animal such as goats and horses (and of course, chickens). Our first stop was by a taro patch: taro being a tropical plant in the Araceae family and one of the staple crops grown by Cook Islanders (it’s also used in Africa and southern India). Typically the starchy roots are boiled and used like potato; the leaves are also cooked with coconut milk to make the local dish called rukau.

Taro growing in dry soils, Rarotonga

Taro is a versatile crop, growing both in waterlogged swampy soils and in dry ones (although our local guide Jimmy explained that dry taro is not as tasty). A sackful of taro roots could be sold for NZ$100 – 120 and a good taro patch will yield 60 – 70 sackfuls. But cultivating taro is heavy work: first the soil in the taro patch must be dug over with a long-handled shovel, then a giant wooden ‘dibber’ (weighing 30 – 40 kg) is used to make holes for each individual taro plant. In a tropical climate weeds grow fast, so locals mulch their taro patches to prevent this. Formerly black polythene was used, but environmental concerns have led to people reverting to using biodegradable materials such as old cardboard with rito (coconut leaves) laid on top… Which looks far nicer than plastic.

Taro cultivation on Rarotonga

Only locals can own land in the Cook Islands, and land is passed down within families. If a favourite son is getting married, a father will plant a taro patch for their wedding. Jimmy explained that many people do their own planting on Rarotonga but not everyone: if someone was to steal crops from another person’s taro patch it would not be regarded too severely, provided the thief was taking it for food and not to sell. He told us that if he spotted someone raiding his patch he would duck down out of sight so they didn’t realise that they had been seen… And then he would casually say to them a few days later, “Hey, how’d you like the taro?”

There is a general atmosphere of trust on Rarotonga and little crime, except for occasional opportunistic theft from tourists careless enough to leave valuables temptingly on display at the beach. Drink driving is also regarded more leniently than in other countries: police who stop drunk drivers will generally just confiscate their car or motorbike, telling them to walk home and retrieve their vehicle once they’ve sobered up. Recently however a local youth had died in a drink-driving accident, so there was a move towards trying to better educate people about the dangers of drink driving. I personally found cycling on the Ara Tapu pretty pleasant, as the vast majority of locals pootle along at an average speed of fifteen miles per hour… Very civilized.

Cassava root

The next staple crop we saw was cassava (aka maniota, arrowroot or tapioca). The advantage of cassava is that it is relative easy to propagate: you just chop the stem into short lengths and shove them into the soil. The disadvantage is that in its unprocessed raw state it contains cyanide, which makes you wonder who got the bright idea of eating it in the first place. To render cassava edible it has to be soaked for twenty-four hours and cooked. You can boil and then fry it to make tasty chips, or grate it and mix it with coconut cream and ripe bananas to make the yummy local dish known as poke.

Pineapples growing on Rarotonga

As well as starchy root crops we saw plenty of fruit being grown as well, including pineapples. Natavia explained that two main varieties are grown on Rarotonga: the smooth-leaved pineapple and the spiky-leaved variety. The latter was introduced more recently and only produces for fruit for 2 – 3 years before you have to replant it; whereas the smooth-leaved pineapple is a perennial that keeps on producing for a longer period (and apparently yields sweeter-tasting fruits, too).

Bananas growing on RarotongaBananas are another staple food here, usually grown on 3-stemmed plants. Natavia explained that once a few rows of bananas have started to form, the purplish-red flower is removed so that more energy will go into plumping up the fruits. As it was technically only early spring on Rarotonga, some of the banana plants still wore large plastic mesh bags covering their fruits and flowers, to shield them from low nighttime temperatures.

Piglets on RarotongaFor the more carnivorous side of things, most households on Rarotonga keep a few pigs. These are typically kept penned or tied to a halter, so that they can’t wreak havoc on growing crops (a single pig can push over and destroy several banana plants in a single night, to get at the fruits and juicy water-filled stems). They are fed on coconut and usually end up being slow-baked in a traditional umu ground-oven, perhaps as part of a family celebration – or a meal for tourists!

Storytellers guide Jimmy demonstrates how to open coconuts, Rarotonga

It’s not just the pigs who have coconut on the menu, though. Jimmy described it as the tree of life: a plant from which people can get most of their needs, including food, clothing, timber and roofing material. He showed us the three different stages of a coconut: the immature young nu or green coconut (which largely contains coconut water with a little jelly-like flesh); the mature akari coconut (the one we’re most familiar with, with its brown outer husk and solid layer of white inner flesh); and the sprouting uto coconut (where the creamy white interior has become mostly dry and fibrous, with a texture like marshmallow).

Jimmy opening a coconut, Rarotonga

Jimmy demonstrated how to strip off the husk and open each of the three different coconut types, so we all got to try the different stages. I personally liked akari the best, maybe because that was what I’m most familiar with. The fresh sweet juice of nu was deliciously refreshing, but I couldn’t help thinking it would be even better with rum added to it. Nu are the coconuts which fetch the best price when sold locally to tourists. As a rule of thumb, if a coconut is lying on the ground it’s yours to eat: nobody gets possessive about the fruits because there are quite a lot of them about.

Coconuts are not just yummy and nourishing, the flesh can be grated and squeezed to make coconut cream (more of this in a later chapter). The oil is wonderful for treating burns, eczema and dry skin. Jimmy described how his relatives make monoi, a scented oil for use on hair and skin, by fermenting chopped coconut flesh with the leaves of the cinnamon tree. Monoi scented with different herbs and flowers is used across the South Pacific, and I can vouch for the fact that it’s wonderfully soothing.

Horses grazing, Rarotonga

After our introduction to coconuts we cycled onwards, following inland tracks that threaded between planting fields and the occasional grassy pasture where goats or horses grazed. Rarotonga’s volcanic origins mean that as soon as you head inland the terrain gets hilly. Jimmy explained that before European missionaries arrived in the Cook Islands, the majority of people lived up in the highlands, to be safe from possible raiding parties arriving by sea. The Christian missionaries somehow persuaded folks to descend from the heights, and now the lowland areas near the coast are where everyone makes their home.

Marae, Rarotonga

We stopped to look at a Rarotongan marae, a hundred yards or so from the track. A marae is a meeting ground or sacred place, usually a rectangular cleared area of land (sometimes slightly raised), bordered by stones or wooden posts. Jimmy described how a marae is traditionally where a chief, tribal leader or elders pass judgements, settle disputes or have discussions to sort out tribal affairs. This marae had three stone seats: the central one for the tribal chief, the other two for the chief’s advisors. Marae must be treated with respect and no-one should set foot on one, unless invited by the appropriate tribal representative. In the past, women were not allowed onto marae at all, but this is one of the things that has changed over time: some tribes now have a woman chief. Marae used to be located high up in the hills, but most have been relocated to the lowlands so that local people don’t have to walk long distances when they need something resolved.

Noni tree, Rarotonga

Our next stop was a grove of noni trees. Noni, which also goes by the charming names of Indian mulberry, cheese fruit or vomit fruit, is regarded as something of a panacea. It is claimed to have antioxidant, anti-ageing and even anti-cancer properties, although to date there are no scientific studies confirming this. Anecdotally, Natavia said she drank a small amount of noni juice (made by fermenting and pressing ripe fruits) every day, and has found that it cures sore throats and protects her from viruses. Jimmy also related how he had cured himself from a bad case of ciguatera (a thoroughly nasty and painful type of food poisoning caused by eating certain types of fish) by drinking a herbal cure made from noni leaves, so the plant evidently has some benefits.

Trying noni fruit, RarotongaNatavia found some ripe fruits on the ground and split them open, inviting us to have a smell. It immediately became obvious how noni got some of its alternative monikers: the other tourists on our cycle trip recoiled with noises of disgust, while to my perhaps hardier nose the fruit had a strong smell of blue cheese. Drinking a glassful of noni juice every day suddenly seemed less appealing, despite its promised health benefits.

Yellow hibiscus flower, RarotongaCycling further into the bush, we next encountered some of the wild plants used locally for medicine and first aid. Yellow hibiscus or ‘au grows everywhere in the Cook Islands: its seeds can survive for months in salt water, colonising new islands, and the ‘au tree is hardy enough to grow even along sandy beaches.

Jimmy peeling yellow hibiscus, RarotongaJimmy demonstrated why locals never carry a first aid kit with them when planting or working in the bush: cutting a branch from an ‘au, he proceeded to peel it and then strip out the soft inner bark, to show how it could be used as a bandage. Scraping the peeled branch produced a juicy pith which he said was used to pack cuts and wounds, over which the inner bark strips would be wrapped and tied, the bark tightening as it dries to keep the wound clean and prevent infection.

Yellow hibiscus bandage, RarotongaDoctors at the local hospital are happy for people to use this natural remedy which is very efficacious… And it’s why all a local will take with them when working in the bush is a machete or knife for gathering the necessary plants.

Two more plants which can be useful are miri (or tree basil) and mile-a-minute vine (or American rope). Both of these are alien plant species, accidentally introduced and now ramping away to the detriment of native Cook Island plants and habitats.

Miri, RarotongaMiri comes in handy when there are mosquitoes about, which is pretty much all the time when you’re inland away from sea breezes. Simply scrunching up the leaves and rubbing the brownish juice on your skin makes an effective insect repellent, and one which I used more than once in my travels. A single leaf placed in a bottle of water flavours it nicely, too.

Mile-a-minute vine, RarotongaMile-a-minute vine as its name suggest grows prolifically: sometimes as much as nine centimetres a day. Like the ‘au, it is very good for healing cuts, wounds and sores: the leaves are scrunched up to make a pulp and then applied to cover the injury. Natavia related how she had sustained a nasty wound after a fall from her cycle, which she applied this magical herb to: not only did her injuries heal quickly, but with virtually no scarring.

The Rarotonga Hilton Spa Resort

The next leg of our cycle tour took us to the site of the notorious Hilton Rarotonga Resort Spa. This ghost hotel was originally launched as a project back in 1990, when the Cook Islands government teamed up with an Italian bank and the Sheraton hotel chain to build Rarotonga’s first 5-star luxury hotel development. Unfortunately much of the NZ$52 million loan needed to make it happen allegedly disappeared into the pockets of the Mafia and other dubious parties, resulting in the hotel project being abandoned after a few years, despite construction being 80% completed.

 Rarotonga Hilton Resort and Spa

Various attempts have been made over the years to relaunch the project, most recently a bid by two New Zealand companies in 2014, but to date nothing has got off the ground. Some believe that this is because Vaimaanga, the site on which the hotel stands, is said to have a tapu upon it. In 1910 the land’s owner, More Uriatua, was shot dead during an argument with New Zealander William John Wigmore who leased some of the land for his copra plantation. More Uriatua’s daughter Metua placed a curse on the land, dooming any business upon it to failure. Wigmore’s copra plantation was the first to go under; followed by unsuccessful pineapple growing, a failed plant nursery, and a doomed citrus farm.

Vaimaanga does have an eerie feel to it. Some of the site’s fixtures and materials have been recycled by locals, and the crumbling buildings are now host only to paint balling and wildlife. It’s a great shame that the project has left the Cook Islands government with a mountainous debt and an unattractive derelict site, but as the original project included plans to blast channels through Rarotonga’s coral reef and build an exclusive private beach and marina on what is otherwise a totally free public access coastline, I personally felt inclined to side with Metua and let the land revert back to wilderness.

Candle nuts, RarotongaCoasting downhill from Vaimaanga led us past a large candlenut tree or tuitui. The large walnut-like fruits contain oil-rich nuts which were used, as the name suggests, as a source of light: several nuts would be threaded onto a thin spike and burned like small candles. Soot produced from burning candlenuts was also used in traditional tattooing methods. Like British conkers, candlenuts are high in saponins so should not be eaten raw… Unaware of this I sampled one. I don’t recommend you follow my example.

Storytellers cycle tour lunch, Rarotonga

Luckily the lunch that was waiting for us at the end of our cycle ride was a lot tastier. Dave greeted us at a beachside picnic table spread with a proper feast: fresh tuna steaks, taro and cassava chips, macaroni cheese, salad with lettuce and tomato and pawpaw, and oranges and bananas for dessert. After four hours of off-road cycling I was ready to refuel, and tucked in with enthusiasm. It was the perfect end to a fascinating and entertaining morning: I would recommend the Storytellers cycle tour to anyone visiting Rarotonga, and Natavia and Jimmy and Dave are all lovely folks to boot.

Aremango Guesthouse garden, RarotongaBack at Aremango Guesthouse I took a remedial stroll along the beach to help my enormous lunch go down, followed by a remedial nap in one of the hammocks in the garden to deal with the return of my let lag. After this I wrote up my travel journal, and mused upon the fact that I had only two more days’ stay on Rarotonga before heading northwards to the smaller islands of Aitutaki and ‘Atiu. Two days wasn’t long enough to do this friendly and diverse place justice, but it would have to do. Tomorrow I decided to explore on foot and do some snorkelling, feeling that it was high time I tested out my new mask and waterproof camera. As the mosquitoes began to rally their forces I retreated inside for supper and bed, leaving the tropical night to the cicadas, accompanied by the ever-present opera of chickens.

Rarotonga airport

Coming up next time, in South Pacific Adventure part 3:

A desert island just the right size; undersea explorations; and getting scrubbed up for church on Sunday. I say goodbye to Rarotonga… and hello to Aitutaki.

Travels in the Cook Islands… South Pacific Adventure, part 1

View of Rarotonga from Taaoka motu

Last September I went on an awfully big adventure. I flew halfway around the world, to go traveling for five weeks in the South Pacific. As I had never been traveling before, this was something of a departure from my normal routine, to say the least.

In the months before I set off, an oft-repeated question directed at me by curious folks was, “Why the South Pacific?” My answers varied depending on the mood I was in, but usually comprised some or all of the following: (1) good snorkelling, (2) friendly and safe for a lone woman traveller, (3) desert islands, palm trees, sunshine, lagoons, coral reefs… And (4) as a child I got more than slightly obsessed with the South Pacific as a result of reading three books: Let’s See If The World Is Round (Hakon Mielche), South Sea Adventure (Willard Price), and The Kon-Tiki Expedition (Thor Heyerdahl).

From my childhood reading (blissfully oblivious of the rampant colonialism in all three books) I received the impression that the South Pacific was a magical and exciting place, teeming with wildlife, populated by quirky and amiable locals, and rich in natural beauty and ancient culture. Here was a place where you could swim with sharks, lie under palm trees listening to ukulele music beneath the stars, see stunning lagoons and coral reefs, and live a simple life in a tropical paradise.

So: off to the South Pacific I went. And for the next few installments of this blog, I will be recounting my traveller’s tales. For the record (spoiler alert), my expectations were exceeded. Coral reefs and lagoons are indeed heart-stoppingly beautiful. I inadvertently swam with sharks several times, as well as with humpback whales and manta rays. There was a lot of ukulele music but don’t ever lie under a coconut palm to listen to it unless you’re wearing a suit of armour. And the South Pacific may look like paradise, but living there requires hard work, ingenuity, strong community and – in the face of climate change and seismic unpredictability – large amounts of luck.

First South Pacific sunrise, from the plane to Rarotonga

To get to the South Pacific from the UK requires a very long plane journey, whether you fly east via Singapore, or west via Los Angeles. I opted for the latter, with a purgatorial six-hour layover in LA airport. US immigration officials have had their sense of humour surgically removed, and the queues were epic. Quite why our American cousins think anyone is desperately keen to sneak into their gun- and God-infested country is anyone’s guess, but Uncle Sam’s guardians were scrupulous in grilling every sleep-deprived traveller over the minutiae of their journey plans. I caused them no small consternation by wearing glasses, as in my passport photo I don’t have them on. Once we’d established that I was actually me (by the simple act of removing my glasses), I was allowed through to a deserted chilly air-conditioned barn of a boarding gate waiting area. I curled up on the carpet with my back against a wall and cat-napped for a few hours, lulled by announcements at regular intervals inviting US servicemen and their families to make full use of the exclusive airport facilities for serving personnel.

I’d opted for a direct flight to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, rather than going via New Zealand, so twenty-six hours after I’d left the UK I was seeing my first South Pacific sunrise from the window of my plane. It looked very beautiful. And once my plane had landed at Rarotonga airport and I’d been ferried by minibus taxi with a bunch of other bleary-eyed travellers to Aremango Guesthouse where I was staying, I lost no time in going exploring. First project: catch the island bus into Avarua, the main town on Rarotonga, to buy some food.Rarotonga map by Bron Smith

Rarotonga, like many South Pacific islands, has a mountainous (volcanic) interior, fringed by coral reef and lagoon. The only flat bits of land are largely along the coast, so the Ara Tapu (main road) runs all the way round the edge of the island (as does the older Ara Metua, which runs just inland of the Ara Tapu). As the road goes in a circle, this means there are only two bus routes to keep track of: clockwise and anticlockwise. The whole circumference is only twenty miles, so you can trundle round it in an hour or so on the bus (or less if you go by car or scooter). The buses are battered but comfy old single deckers that appear to have made in China, if the interior is anything to go by.

Rarotonga bus, anti-clockwise routeThe bus drivers are an entertaining bunch: my personal favourite was Mr Hopeless, who keeps a running commentary going for the entire journey about landmarks, local politics, tourists and his family and neighbours. When he runs out of things to say, he sings. I feel all British bus drivers should be sent on sabbaticals to Rarotonga, where they will learn from Mr Hopeless that keeping your passengers entertained is far more important than sticking slavishly to a timetable.

The beach at Aremango guesthouse in Rarotonga, looking out into the lagoonBy the time I’d returned back from Avarua with the basics (bread, cheese, tea and beer) it was afternoon and time to investigate the beach. A hundred yard walk through some gardens and there I was: standing on coral sands, looking out over a turquoise lagoon. It was warm and there was the sound of surf breaking on the reef; and despite acute sleep deprivation, I suddenly felt intensely blessed to be there. Halfway around the world from where I lived, in the South Pacific at last.

Rarotonga, south Muri, looking out towards Taaoka motu

I explored westwards along the beach, past the little motu (islet) called Taaoka, which lies just offshore. Aremango is on south Muri beach, an area of Rarotonga popular with visitors. So popular in fact that sewerage run-off into the sea from tourist accommodation is causing environmental problems, with increased nitrogen levels resulting in algal blooms hazardous to marine life and human health. The problem has been acknowledged and some measures (e.g. improving septic tank sewer systems) have been put into place, but much more work still needs to be done.

Environmental improvement in Muri lagoon, Rarotonga

On my first day there I was unaware of this issue, and you certainly couldn’t tell from looking at the lagoon that there was a problem. But a couple of days later I found the information display pictured above, and it was a timely reminder that those of us who are wealthy enough to travel and holiday in other people’s countries are responsible for the impact our stay has there, whether that be on the local environment, the economy or the culture. Flying over ten thousand miles to the Cook Islands is no small carbon footprint, so I was keen to stay in simple accommodation and to explore and enjoy the islands by as environmentally-friendly means as possible… Which on Rarotonga meant getting about by three of my favourite methods: bus, cycle and on foot.

As well as trying to address the sewerage pollution issue, there are other initiatives being enforced on Rarotonga to conserve the environment and wildlife. One of these is the designation of ra’ui: a ban on fishing or harvesting foods either in a specific area, or of a specific animal or plant species.

Ra'ui, Muri beach, RarotongaRa’ui (or rāhui) are a traditional part of Maori culture, whereby a tapu (spiritual edict or prohibition) is placed restricting use of or access to a place, e.g. for gathering food. In the Cook Islands the ra’ui concept was revived in the late 1990s, to protect the island’s lagoon habitat. The Aronga Mana (traditional tribal councils) have placed ra’ui on several areas around Rarotonga’s lagoon. These ra’ui are not enforced through legal channels but instead rely on respect for traditional authority, with infringement dealt with by “rebuke and community pressure”.

The other initiative that seeks to protect the marine environment in Rarotonga and elsewhere in the Cook Islands is the designation of a Marine Park. Although it was formally announced as policy by Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna in 2013, the Marae Moana marine park has yet to be set up. As ever, funding and fishing interests are in the mix… Hopefully these won’t prove insurmountable obstacles for this project, because the lagoon surrounding Rarotonga certainly deserves protection of the highest standard and is a beautiful and diverse environment… As my photo below of threadfin butterfly fish, taken whilst snorkelling, shows.

Threadfin butterfly fish, Rarotonga lagoon

As well as the occasional ra’ui notice, there were other signs repeated at regular intervals along the Ara Tapu that certainly caught my notice. You know you’re in a interesting part of the world when roadside signs inform you not of speed limits or dual carriageways, but instead tell you which way to run in the event of a tsunami. This disconcerted me at first, but the rather jolly signs are reassuring in a low-tech sort of way. The knowledge that you’re in a place where seismic activity occasionally means that very big waves come ashore is a bit worrying… But no need to panic, there is a plan to cope with this: i.e. run fairly smartly up the nearest hill that presents itself. Which given that Rarotonga just inland of the Ara Tapu is all hill, doesn’t prove too difficult. Raro-pic09

Whether or not I needed to make use of a tsunami evacuation route during my five weeks of travelling in the South Pacific will be revealed in a later chapter of this blog. In the meantime, I knew that I needed a good night’s kip because tomorrow I was going to be up early to head out on a cycle tour to explore Rarotonga’s interior. I had reached the end of my first day in the South Pacific: happy, hallucinating slightly from lack of sleep, stuffed with bread and cheese and beer and bananas, I fell asleep to the sound of the island’s three billion chickens serenading the sunset. Sweet dreams.

Cycling off the beaten track, with Rarotonga Eco Tours

Coming up next time, in South Pacific Adventure part 2:

Off-road cycling; bush medicine and plant First Aid; everything you ever wanted to know about coconuts; and why building a hotel on cursed land is not a good idea, even if you’re the Mafia. Plus chickens. Lot of chickens.

Feeling sinister

Fractured wrist  in splint

At the time of writing this blog entry, I am in sinister mode… In the sense that I am largely left-handed, owing to having fractured my right wrist! This was something of a surprise to me, because I actually did the damage at the end of December (when I elegantly toppled sideways off my bicycle on an icy towpath during a frosty winter ride). Being an old school stiff-upper-lip British stoic, at the time I sprang nimbly back to my feet and cycled on homewards, with only an aching shoulder for a few days afterwards as a memento. But while driving to teach at a London school three weeks later, my right wrist started to ache. Luckily I have a GP who is excellent at injuries and it took him all of two seconds of prodding to diagnose a suspected fracture of the scaphoid bone… Which an x-ray at Newbury hospital later confirmed.

Having not even heard of the scaphoid bone before, I was somewhat dubious about the need for wearing a splint, particularly as I’d been carrying on as normal for the best part of a month after my bike accident. But it turns out that this little cashew nut-shaped bone (located at the base of the thumb where it joins the wrist) is annoyingly tricky to heal once you’ve damaged it. Hence the fetching velcro and metal splint which I currently have to wear all day. If all goes well I should be healed and splint-free within a few weeks: in the meantime as I can neither cycle nor drive, I’m doing a lot of walking. I’m keeping my fingers crossed (on my left hand, anyway) that there will be no complications, so I can return to normal functioning by the time my busy teaching season starts in early March.

Kinnersley CastleFortunately I’ve had good things happening in January too. I belong to the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network, an organisation for singing teachers, choir leaders and voice workers. In early January the NVPN holds its annual gathering, which usually takes place at Wortley Hall near Sheffield (see one of my earlier blog posts, Digging ponds and singing songs for an account of my visit to Wortley Hall in 2013). However, the NVPN membership has grown in recent years to such an extent that the main gathering was oversubscribed and a ‘mini gathering’ was organised for those of us who left it too late to book for Wortley. The venue for this smaller gathering was the beautiful Elizabethan Kinnersley Castle in Herefordshire.

Kinnersley Castle fourposter bed

Kinnersley Castle is still a family home, which can be hired as a venue for events. It is full of character – I was chuffed on reaching my room to find I would be sleeping in a four-poster bed! Our meals were home-cooked and plentiful, and the hospitality from hostess and NVPN member Katherina Garratt-Adams was warm and welcoming. The space that we used for our singing workshops and group sessions had a huge fireplace with a log fire that we all took turns toasting ourselves in front of (including Coco, Katherina’s friendly black labrador).

Relaxing with Coco in front of the fire, Kinnersley Castle

I always get a huge amount from these NVPN gatherings: not just song material for teaching with Sing The World, the Newbury-based choir that I co-lead, but also lots of useful ideas and guidance for all the issues involved in being a singing teacher. Having suffered from laryngitis and lost my voice completely back in September, I found the sessions on looking after our voices and developing our singing range particularly helpful. The NVPN largely follows a community of practice model for sharing expertise, which is an extremely effective way to support our professional development.

Kinnersley Castle: Katherina and Caius

Staying at Kinnersley Castle was a fantastic experience and a great way to ease back into the working year after the festive break. It’s a venue with tons of character and welcoming hosts (including the lovely Katherina and Caius, pictured above).

Chilly winter weather doesn’t generally stop me from going exploring. We’ve had some glorious bright sunny midwinter days and I took advantage of one to go for a walk with my friend Will along the downs in the Vale of Pewsey. It was a route we hadn’t done before, up onto the Tan Hill Way and then round Gopher Wood and Oare Hill, finishing with a loop over Giant’s Grave, an Iron Age hillfort and settlement.

Giant's Grave Iron Age hillfort and settlement, OareWe were glad that we had done our route in a clockwise direction, as the final descent from Giant’s Grave down into the village of Oare was precipitous enough that I had to run down it with my arms outstretched and making whooping noises. (A vital strategy for obtaining maximum speed with the minimum of risk to myself or other walkers coming from the opposite direction.)

Draycott Hill near Oare, WiltshireThere is something about sunshine in the depths of winter that is particularly restorative, even in the Arctic winds that were blowing that day. And the landscape of chalk downland always holds a special magic for me, growing up as I did in the Chilterns. The walk route around Oare is one I will definitely revisit, perhaps in early summer when orchids may be about. Even in early January it was beautiful, with red kites and buzzards wheeling on the wind currents high above the hills.

Festival of Light, Newbury December 2015Winter can feel like a bit of a miserable time, especially if the weather is wet and grey. Fortunately there are opportunities to dispel the darkness: Newbury hosts an annual Festival Of Light, a midwinter celebration where locals make lanterns from willow and tissue before joining together in a parade through the town. There were lanterns of all shapes and designs, including stars, fish, boats, spaceships and even a dalek and a Darth Vader! At the end of the parade there were hot chestnut sellers, brightly-burning braziers to warm your hands at and a lively band to keep everyone warm. There was a great energy there, definitely an inspired way to ward off the winter blues.

Another winter event which got people together was the Thousand Voices evening. Local choirs (including Wacapella, our Sing The World performance group) sang separately at various locations across Newbury town centre, before joining together by the Christmas tree in the market place for a mass sing. It was great fun to take part… I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard The Twelve Days Of Christmas sung quite so loudly before!

Winter trees, Snelsmore Common

In contrast to the gloomy and soggy winter of 2013/2014, December and January have brought a good share of bright days, perfect for getting out and about in. In mid-January I went for a walk across Snelsmore Common, a nature reserve on the edge of Newbury now managed by local wildlife trust BBOWT. This is a site both popular with locals and rich in wildlife and interesting habitats (including bogs with carnivorous plants known as sundews). Going back over a decade, I lived up a tree at Snelsmore for a short time, along with a host of other hardy souls seeking to prevent the dreaded Newbury Bypass from being constructed. The Newbury Bypass protest is well remembered by locals, whether or not they were involved in either the activism or the road building. I lost my heart to this lovely stretch of ancient woodland and like many of my friends it was gut-wrenching to be there when the bailiffs and bulldozers finally rolled in and destroyed a swathe of this amazing place forever.

Happily, activism and opposition to environmental destruction and social injustice is still going strong in the UK. As the media and political parties crank up their apparatus for the General Election campaigning season we’ll no doubt have more coverage than we want of democracy in action… But mindful of what’s going down in other areas of the world (Ukraine and Russia, for instance) it’s a good time to remember that we’re lucky to have a democratic system at all, flawed though it is. Being something of an anarchist/libertarian I’m not a huge fan of our current set-up, but I’ll certainly be voting on election day. The good news is that the Green Party is fielding candidates in every ward of Berkshire, which at least gives me an opportunity to vote for someone whose politics reflect my own interests. And for those who say that voting for the Green Party is a wasted vote because it will allow the Tories back in, my considered response is: thhhbbppppt. *blows raspberry*

Time 2 Act: march against climate change, 7th March 2015

There is a lot of brouhaha written and said these days about non-participation in democracy. Personally I think there is just as much radicalism and engagement as there ever was; it’s just that people have many more ways to express how they wish their locality and country should be run. Also the majority of us seem to be utterly unimpressed by the posturing of politicians and the ponderous workings of government, which these days looks increasingly like an old boys’ club of ex-Eton pupils.

If as some pundits seem to think our political system is in the throes of change, it may not be a bad thing. (It’s worrying that a few folks seem to think that UKIP is an answer, but I suppose all those sulking ex-Tories had to go somewhere.) My response to all of this is to get back into activism, so I will be going to the Time To Act climate change march in London on Saturday 7th March. The climate change debate continues but it’s evident that we can’t go on living as if we had a spare planet as well as this one, so why not come along too and make some noise in London this spring – if only to communicate to those currently hitting the political campaign trail that the environment is not only the concern of a minority bunch of tree huggers.

Rather than finish on a strident note, I will end this blog entry with a photo of a particularly magnificent winter sunrise. I never stop being grateful for this world in which I live… That’s kind of why I feel compelled to look after it.

Winter sunrise, Newbury December 2014

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed the day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.

– ‘What A Wonderful World’
Bob Thiele & George David Weiss

Walking with dinosaurs

Sophie the stegosaurus

‘It is bad news to science museums when four in ten Americans believe humans lived
with dinosaurs, and fewer than two in ten understand the terms “molecule” and “DNA.” ‘
 – Larry Witham

I am lucky enough to have a good friend who works at the Natural History Museum in London, and back in mid-December he generously gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum. Me being a complete geek (and proud of it), this was the equivalent of finding a Willy Wonka golden ticket to the chocolate factory. I find all science fascinating and biology particularly so (this being the discipline that I know most about), so an access-all-areas exploration of this amazing place was a real treat. We started our day by visiting the NHM’s new and famous acquisition, Sophie the stegosaurus, thought to be the most complete (80%) stegosaurus fossilised skeleton in the world.

My friend Chris works in the Life Sciences department of the museum, managing the UK Species Inventory. It’s hard to overstate how important this inventory is: essentially, if we don’t know what wildlife species we’ve got, it becomes virtually impossible to conserve them effectively. Identification and taxonomy (the science of defining and naming species) are increasingly neglected skills, so much so that the NHM is offering traineeships to encourage more people to champion these branches of science.

Cocoon, Natural History Museum

Chris is based in the Angela Mormont Centre for Biodiversity, which is tucked away within the Darwin Centre and Cocoon, impressive modern additions to the NHM’s original glorious Victorian Gothic architecture. The new building provides space for housing the museum’s massive collection of biological specimens, whilst also providing an opportunity for the public to learn about and observe the work of the scientists housed within.

Natural Hitory Museum old wooden specimen cabinetsOriginally, museum specimens were stored in wooden specimen cabinets: precision-crafted pieces of furniture which can still be seen in corridors underneath the museum. Whilst these older cabinets are beautiful pieces of work, they are not ideal for maintaining the stable and pest-free environment that most specimens require, so they have been mostly replaced with more hi-tech storage systems.

Natural History Museum metal specimen cabinets

Whilst the new grey metal cabinets lack the character of the old wooden ones, they undoubtedly protect the museum’s collection more effectively. And the collection is both massive and hugely valuable, both to science and to culture. Each bay contains several cupboards, each cupboard housing rows of drawers crammed with specimens of all sorts.

Lepidoptera specimens, Natural History Museum

The museum’s collection of specimens is vast, having been gathered over the past 400 years. There are 61.5 million animal specimens (including 34 million insects); 7 million fossils; 6 million algae, lichens and plants; and 500,000 rocks, gems and minerals. I felt somewhat awestruck by the sheer volume of material, but also the history attached to the specimens: all those collectors – amateur naturalists and botanists and geologists and fossil hunters – adding over the centuries to our sum of knowledge about the amazing diversity of our natural world. It felt like time travel, looking at some of them (like this Arrowhead Sagittaria sagittifolia collected in 1822 from Mill Meadow, Banbury).

Botanical specimen dated 1822, Natural History Museum

Generally you need a TARDIS for time travel: and like a TARDIS, the museum seems bigger on the inside. Travelling along warrens of corridors and down many stairs took us to a spot in the basement well-known to museum employees, Giraffe Corner. The clue is in the name: this is a tall storage space where giraffe specimens were once parked.

Giraffe Corner, Natural History MuseumNowadays Giraffe Corner is used mostly as a reference point for people navigating the basement, although a hatch still connects the space to the display area above… Which is right in the entrance hall of the museum (you can see the wooden trapdoor through which the giraffes would have been hoisted up and down).

Above Giraffe Corner, Natural History Museum

As the museum has been replacing its older wooden specimen cabinets with new metal ones, the vintage cabinets have become available for purchase by entomologists, naturalists or anyone who would like them. There are hundreds of them knocking about in storage rooms, gradually being sold off to any interested parties. Some of the most interesting of these superbly-crafted pieces were cases made to protect specimens during the London Blitz. Each of these cabinets is small enough to carry, with a handle on the top: the idea being that when the air raid sirens went off, someone would take the specimens with them to the shelter!

WW2 specimen cabinet, Natural History Museum

Of course while the museum is a vintage establishment, it’s also crammed to the gills with brand spanking new technology and hi-tech stuff as well. Should a dolphin or other cetacean wash up dead in the Thames, there is an autopsy room at the museum which looks like something straight out of Roswell.

Dolphin autopsy room, Natural History Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The museum’s collection includes ‘wet specimens’ as well as dry or inert materials, and although time didn’t allow for us to tour these collections I did get a quick peek through a doorway at someone’s work in progress. My inner boffin was suitably gratified by this scene of weird things in jars, with a faint whiff of formaldehyde to reinforce the ambience.

Wet specimen work, Natural History Museum

It was a real privilege to see some of the mighty collection and hugely important work being done at NHM. I love the natural world, and value science enormously. When I teach, I’m always trying to communicate a greater understanding of ecology, coupled with an appreciation of the beauty and diversity of nature, and our place within it… Largely because I want it all to continue to exist in all its richness.

Humanity has a dodgy track record of treating natural resources with a cavalier attitude, with the result that we’ve eliminated millions of species since we’ve been stumbling around upright on this planet. The exact figures are hard even for scientists to quantify, but it’s estimated that we’re now losing between 10,000 and 100,000 species per year. This shocking human-driven loss of biodiversity – far greater than natural extinction rates – is not sustainable and impacts on every ecosystem on the planet, which in turn impacts on human existence.

The reason for this is ecosystem services. These systems underpin all life on Earth including our own; and basically without them functioning healthily, we’re stuffed. The ecology of our planet is complex and we’re only just beginning to understand it, so removing species wholesale without considering the impact this will have on the wider system seems equivalent to yanking out random bits of your car engine and then expecting it still to work. (With the essential difference that you can’t whip planet Earth down to the nearest KwikFit and ask them to fix it for you: forget Jurassic Park, folks, extinction is forever. Once a species is gone, it’s really gone.)

Boffins peering at beetles may not seem like life-saving science – and it may have less apparent glamour than landing probes on comets or creating artificial intelligence – but if we fail to understand the biodiversity of which we’re just a part, we’re setting ourselves up for some almighty payback, sooner or later. Some take the cornucopia approach to nature, valuing it as a resource for medicines, industry and the economy. Others think its beauty, variety and general amazingness is what makes it precious. Either way, we need it: and the work of institutions like the NHM will remain key in helping us to understand and protect our natural world.

Charles Darwin statue, Natural History Museum

“The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.”
– Charles Darwin

 

What I did in my holidays… and the rest of the time

 It’s been quite a while since I last updated this blog (life having been somewhat hectic). But as midwinter approaches and the cold and dark are really strengthening their hold, reflecting back on my summer and autumn adventures is a nice way to pass the time.
As my environmental education work is at its busiest in school term time (particularly the spring and summer terms), usually by the time the summer holidays finally arrive I am more than ready for a break and this year was no exception. Which is not to say that I didn’t have some good times teaching visiting school groups at Rushall Organic Farm, as well. 2014 has been a very busy year at the farm, with more schoolchildren than ever visiting to spend the day learning about farming, habitats, wildlife, soils and rivers. Starting of course in early spring with lambing.
Despite a very wet winter which created havoc for British farmers everywhere, lambing itself went well at Rushall this year: a welcome change after the bitterly cold spring of 2013 when we lost 15% of our lambs due to the cold weather.
Once lambing was over we were still very busy with school visits, including the residential camps where children come and stay in tents at the farm for several days. I really enjoy working with the kids on the camps: you get to know the children and see them develop over the week as they try their hand at activities ranging from den building and camp fires to sheep herding and river dipping. Many of them have never done adventurous outdoor things before and it’s fantastic to see them expanding their boundaries. The teachers often tell us that the Rushall Farm trip is a highlight in many of their pupils’ lives… It’s hard not to be moved by this. It makes the long hours and busy summer term truly worthwhile.
It’s been a year of big change at Rushall Farm, with longstanding farm manager John retiring this autumn and former shepherd Steve stepping up as our new farm manager. The farm will continue to have sheep and cattle and some arable land, including the areas that are managed under the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) farming scheme to support the wildlife that is such a vital part of our ecosystems and landscapes. Both the HLS and the fact that Rushall is organically managed means that the farm is rich in wildlife… I feel very lucky to work on such a special site. Walking through one of our arable fields this summer with groups of children, we were surrounded by poppies. Such an beautiful sight, and a rare one these days.
Towards the end of the school term when I had a bit more liberty, I lost no time in escaping to the seaside (my usual default getaway) for a long weekend in Lyme Regis. This part of western Dorset, named the Jurassic Coast for its wealth of fossils, contains the Undercliffs National Nature Reserve. This 7-mile stretch of rugged and shifting landscape between Lyme Regis and Axmouth is one of my favourite walks, although it can be challenging in places… as this cheerful warning sign at its eastern end suggests.
The coastal path which traverses the Undercliff is challenging in places: particularly so this summer, because a substantial landslip back in the spring made a section of the route impassable. (There is a detour inland if you want to continue west past Culverhole Point, but it looked a tedious trek so rather than bothering with it I just walked a few miles along the section that can still be safely walked.) Even this path is not for the faint-hearted, however. While I was enjoying the view at the start of the path I was overtaken by a large group of walkers… only to meet them returning later on, with complaints of “The path gets terrible a bit further on – we kept falling over.” I like a challenge, though, so I kept on going. The scenery and amazing wildlife made it worth it: this National Nature Reserve is an absolute jewel.
As it was a fairly muggy day with thunder occasionally rumbling overhead, I didn’t meet many other walkers. In the humid heat, surrounded by dense woodland and ferns, it felt about as close to a rainforest experience as you can get in Britain. Every so often though you come upon reminders that although this is a wild landscape, it has also been a settled one: ruins crumbling away amongst the undergrowth, abandoned houses or farm buildings dating from before the great 1839 Bindon Landslip when a huge slab of land known locally as Goat Island simply detached itself one night and rumbled seawards.
One of the quirks of the Undercliff is that although the path skirts the coast and you can often hear and sometimes view the sea from it, actually descending down the unstable cliff face onto the beach is not an easy task. There are stern signs that threaten all manner of dire fates should you try to do so. So you really, really shouldn’t. It’s naughty and wicked, and the Landslip Goblins will swallow you whole if you do it. (Probably.)
Of course not being a naughty wicked trespasser (perish the thought), I skirted the Landslip Goblins and skipped down a safer route. Once on the beach I eventually reached a spot where you can look up to see where the forces of modern coastal path engineering were confronted by the playful forces of Mother Nature… And have been utterfly vanquished. The winter rains have made the Undercliff even more lively than usual, and the last few hundred yards of that particular path resemble not so much a route as a demolition site. “Subject to movement” is a bit of an understatement: in the UK we often forget that the ground under our feet is a dynamic thing, but seeing landslips like this one remind you of the power of natural forces.  Score: Mother Nature 1, Feeble Humans nil. The Landslip Goblins will get you if you dare to venture where you shouldn’t…
Keeping a weather eye on the cliff to make sure that no landslip was currently about to manifest itself, I enjoyed a few hours of leisurely beach-combing. It was worth the effort: by now the thunderstorms had rumbled off elsewhere and it turned into a sunny afternoon. I had pretty much the whole beach to myself (except for a solitary couple who had evidently braved the Path Of Doom and then pottered off eastwards to find their own bit of beach). Left to myself in one of the most gorgeous bits of the Jurassic Coast, I rewarded my efforts with a picnic and a spot of beach art, creating a yin-yang symbol from pebbles and seaweed. Not exactly Andy Goldsworthy, but I enjoyed doing it anyway.
In early August I took some time away from west Berkshire to go to Unicorn Voice Camp, an annual week-long singing camp on the Somerset-Wiltshire border. It was my third Voice Camp and as ever an utter treat for the ears, the voice and the soul: around 400 people gathering together to sing and teach music from a wealth of cultures. One evening a young chap called Matt played his hang for some of us in the big yurt onsite, and it was simply bliss. (If you don’t know what a hang is, check out this video on YouTube.) Unicorn campers (as the name probably suggests) are a creative and mellow lot, I always come away with my energies recharged and a heart full of gorgeous harmonies that I can share with the Sing The World choir that I co-lead in Newbury.
The emphasis at the camp is on authenticity, support and celebration of all things creative and spiritual. There is a also a stonking cabaret (LMAO, as I believe the young folks say), a cafe that serves divine cake, and shared meals round your campfire each night. There is singing absolutely everywhere: barbershop harmony, nightingale-voiced teenagers dueting with guitarists, medieval choral music, African melodies and rhythms, Romany songs, gospel, folk, jazz, and all kinds of stunning original harmony compositions shared by the many talented singers and teachers who go to Voice Camp. It’s a very special musical gathering and long may it continue.
Of course I didn’t spend the whole summer playing: I was also running activity sessions for families at Five A Day Market Garden in Englefield. These half-day sessions were popular and I spent several mornings and afternoons outdoors with kids and their parents, discovering minibeasts and pond life and making all manner of amazing eco art creations… Like this lovely clay and sage leaf snake made by one young lad!
When funding allows it, I run these family sessions in most school holidays. We had some pumpkin carving workshops in the October half term which were also hugely popular, and another family workshop (Crafty Christmas) is scheduled for 20th December. It’s great to see all ages of children having fun and getting messy together, and the parents seem to enjoy it as much as the kids! We certainly had some awesome pumpkin lanterns carved.
Towards the end of August I had one more treat: or more properly, RE-treat: a week away at the Barn Buddhist retreat centre, at The Sharpham Trust near Totnes in Devon. Although I’ve been meditating now for several years I had never been on a retreat before and I wasn’t sure how it would go. Rather wonderfully, as it turned out.
Rising at 6.45am and spending two hours or more in meditation every day may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but you soon settle into it. The retreats at the Barn are based on Buddhist traditions but are non-denominational: anyone can stay, for a week or for longer. Time is divided between mindful tasks (such as working in the organic veg garden and woodland), meditation, and afternoons free for personal practice or simply walking in the surrounding Devon countryside. Silence is held from 9pm each evening to 9am the following morning and there is also one day of complete silence. What impressed itself on me was the absolute peacefulness of the place: both the Barn itself, and its setting on a hillside overlooking the River Dart.
People go on retreats for different reasons. I was basically there to see how it felt, removing myself from the pressures of work and busy everyday life; and also to try to deepen my meditation practice. What I found after a few days of mindfulness and quiet was that so much of what I think is necessary in my life (internet, books, radio, emails) actually isn’t. Having something purposeful to do; taking time to appreciate nature and peace; connecting with other people; savouring every moment of life mindfully; these are more than enough.
Buddhism is a spiritual path sometimes perceived as being rather detached from the world, somewhat devoid of emotion or passion. I find the contrary: it promotes meaningful and intense connection with all of the universe, including the people around us, and an approach to life based on love, kindness, gratitude and patience. (And with a great deal of humour, as anyone who has read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones will know.) I’m by no means an expert but I’m finding it a rewarding exploration. And my retreat at the Barn was a life-changing event, on several levels. I’ve yet to completely work out what seeds were sowed in me while I was there, but they’re definitely germinating.
The most difficult thing about going on retreat was leaving: adjusting back to the ‘normal’ world is a process that takes a little while. I softened the blow by day-tripping Scabbacombe Sands, a little cove near Dartmouth. You can only get down to this lovely beach by walking (a good thirty minutes or so) and the path is pretty steep, so that weeds out the throngs of day-trippers.
Once I got down to sea level I treated myself to a picnic: after leaving the Barn retreat I popped into Totnes to buy picnic supplies, which was entertaining. Totnes is crammed with alternative folks of all sorts (popular rumour has it that the town’s sign once had ‘Totnes: twinned with Narnia’ graffitied onto it) so ‘artisanal’ foods are readily available. Not being made of money I settled for a massive slab of olive bread, some nommy local-grown tomatoes and a pot of wonderfully garlicky guacamole. Nicely washed down with a flask of lapsang souchong tea I’d made myself, before leaving the Barn. Not exactly traditional seaside holiday fare but it hit the spot all right.
I could’ve quite happily stayed until nightfall at Scabbacombe. The sun shone, I paddled in the sea, and all was well with the world. It probably helped that I’d been on a retreat for the past week as well: daily mindfulness practice had switched on all my senses, and for hours I happily sat or pottered about on this beautiful little beach. (Note in the photo below the purple nail polish – a present from a friend at Voice Camp!)
It was good to have some quality get-aways during the summer, after all the hecticness of teaching. Once the schools started back again in September I was busy again, although getting hit by a succession of viruses was somewhat challenging… Especially laryngitis: not a great thing to succumb to when your work is teaching and singing! Fortunately by mid-October I had got enough voice back to run my Songs From The Heart singing workshop, at the lovely converted barn at Elm Farm Organic Research Centre just outside Newbury. It was a fabulous day, with around forty people coming along to sing in harmony together. I was able to share some of the lovely songs I’d learned at Voice Camp, and the feedback from participants at the end of the day was really heart-warming.
I’m starting to be able to give more time to my singing work, which is wonderful: I would like to run more singing workshops for groups. At Voice Camp I went to a series of sessions led by the super-talented and lovely Susie Ro Prater, which got me thinking about how I can compose more of my own a capella harmony songs. And recently I also had an opportunity to sing with a jazz guitarist at Newbury Unplugged (our local monthly open mic night at Ace Space), so music-wise things are expanding for me at the moment. Long may this state of affairs continue.
As winter deepens, my outdoor teaching work has come to its usual seasonal standstill, so all being well I should have some time to spend on developing my singing and other creative pursuits. Sing The World’s ‘peformance group’, Wacapella, is performing as part of the ‘1,000 Voices‘ winter singing event in Newbury on 11th December, so I’m looking forward to that. And on clear frosty days I’ll be getting out and about in the countryside, going for walks and getting some much-needed winter sunshine. During the autumn I carried out some dormouse surveys for local wildlife trust BBOWT, and during one woodland survey came across an absolutely stunning frog. I hope to see lots more wildlife as I ramble across the downs and valleys over the next few weeks. Wishing you all a healthy, peaceful and happy festive season!

Frog in the woods: Peckmoor Copse, Greenham Common.

Not months but moments

‘The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.’
– Rabindranath Tagore

I start this blog entry with the above quote for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that time recently has seemed in short supply. Summer term is always busy for me on the field teaching front, and in June and July I worked several fifty-hour weeks. At the time it seemed like a good idea… And I certainly enjoyed the teaching. But working silly hours catches up with you: and lo and behold, I am now feeling thoroughly frazzled.

As this is self-inflicted suffering, I’m not asking for sympathy. It’s taken me a fortnight of not teaching to realise just how ‘busy’ I allowed my life to become. While it’s always nice to be working (paying the monthly bills being the tiresomely necessary process it is), like other members of my family I have a tendency to be a workaholic. This is promoted by the fact that I do work that is generally fulfilling and positive – i.e. environmental education, wildlife conservation, and teaching singing in groups.

One remedy for this is to get away for a bit. Luckily, I’d arranged some weeks ago to go on a camping weekend with some friends in the Cotswold countryside. A group of us stayed at a peaceful campsite on an organic farm near Stroud. The weather was glorious, the people in our group lovely, and I did manage to defrag my hard drive somewhat.

About half an hour’s walk from the campsite, through some National Trust woodland, is a beautiful lake fringed with water lilies and humming with blue damselflies. Several of us from the group, including children, spent two afternoons swimming here. One of the women whom I swam with, who is German, remarked on how curious it is that so few British people swim in outdoor places such as lakes and rivers; whereas in Europe it is a totally normal and common activity.

While ‘wild swimming’ has recently started to enjoy a revival in this country, it still seems to be regarded as an eccentric fringe activity, or even as something trangressive or reckless. I’m not sure exactly why this should be, but I suspect it has to do with two possible factors. One is exaggerated fear about safety. I fully accept that swimming anywhere (including in a pool) carries risk, and there were a few tragic fatalities during the recent heatwave where unfortunate people went swimming in dangerous places. But provided that one follows common-sense guidelines (such as those recommended by the Outdoor Swimming Society), the risk can be managed.

The other issue seems to be access, or lack of it. At the lake where we swam we did have a minor confrontation with a thoroughly unpleasant and aggressive angler who took grave exception to the fact that we were planning to swim in the lake – this despite the fact that the said lake was almost a kilometre long, and there appeared to be ample room for swimmers and anglers alike. After failing to intimidate us (although he did succeed in frightening some of the children in our group) he stomped back into the bushes, while we walked on and found a pleasant and safe swimming spot that was nowhere near any fishing activity.

Being something of a bolshie I tend to be strengthened in my determination to do something if someone authoritatively attempts to dissuade me from doing it. Nevertheless, I am disturbed by the fact that someone feels they should enjoy exclusive access to a body of water simply because they have paid a fee to fish in one small corner of it. Provided that wild swimmers act safely, treat swimming sites with respect (including respecting wildlife) and do not disturb other people, what’s the problem?

The angry angler incident was soon forgotten in the pleasure of swimming in cool water in such beautiful surroundings. The campsite itself was a lovely place, woodland-fringed with spacious tent pitches and few campers (the farm has a policy of limiting the numbers of people who can stay at any one time). There were eco-showers, washing up areas and very upmarket compost toilets: lah-di-dah loos, as a friend of mine might call them. With potted geraniums, mirrors, soft loo roll and a view down the wooded valley… Who could ask for more from a humble campsite bog?

As we’ve been blessed with long weeks of unusually hot and sunny weather, I’ve been able to indulge in wild swimming on a semi-regular basis. I was lucky enough to find a good spot in the River Kennet just west of Newbury, where on several scorching summer afternoons I enjoyed cooling down whilst surrounded by nature: trees, reedbeds, damselflies, fish and birds all doing their thing unbothered by me paddling about mid-channel. I encountered a few other local people enjoying the same part of the river, which was encouraging. One man asked me if I wasn’t frightened of attack from savage pike, to which I smiled and replied “No… I’ve got shoes on.” Perhaps I was being cavalier in my attitude to pike-related human maiming incidents: feel free to let me know if you have documented evidence.

One very real threat in the River Kennet has been a recent pesticide pollution incident near Marlborough. Someone somewhere released a tiny quantity of the organophosphate pesticide chlorpyrifos, which was enough to kill all the aquatic invertebrates living in a stretch of the river. The pollution effects were spotted by volunteers working for ARK (Action for the River Kennet), and the incident is still being investigated by the Environment Agency. Fish and birds that feed on the river invertebrates will of course be adversely affected too. I sincerely hope that whoever did this is caught: they may have been careless, stupid or ignorant but above all they should be stopped from doing it again. The Environment Agency is appealing for information, so if you’ve got any why not give them a ring on 0800 807060. And please always dispose of any pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals carefully: never pour them down a drain.

On a happier note, during September I’m running some wildlife gardening morning workshops at Five A Day Market Garden in Englefield. The photo above was taken of participants on my wild flower and insects course in mid-July, on a truly sweltering hot day. It was a great session with some lovely people, and I’m looking forward to more of them: Trees and Shrubs for Wildlife (14th September), and Garden Birds and Mammals (28th September).

My sessions at Five A Day Market Garden are not just for adults, either: there are two family activity sessions coming up in the October half term holiday: Animal Magic! on Tuesday 29th and Thursday 31st October. A good opportunity for families to come for nature-themed fun, and to get creative with arts and crafts. Both sessions are booking up in advance, so if you fancy coming along to either these or my adult wildlife gardening workshops, best to email me at becca@fiveaday.org.uk as soon as possible.

As well as holiday sessions I’ve been working with Thatcham Young Rangers, the environmental youth group that runs at the Nature Discovery Centre in Thatcham. Sadly the RSPB funding that enabled me to work with the group has come to an end, with my last session with the kids being in early September. (The Young Rangers group itself is continuing, under the great leadership of co-leader Becky O’Melia, supported by staff from BBOWT, the Berks Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust.) I will miss the children hugely: they’re a fabulous bunch, and hugely knowledgeable about wildlife. There were a few wobbly lips (including mine) when I told them I was leaving, but hopefully I’ll be invited back as a ‘special guest’ from time to time.

Partly as a result of recent changes (the RSPB ending their involvement at Thatcham, and BBOWT negotiating a working arrangement with West Berkshire Council to take on responsibility for managing several local nature conservation sites, including Thatcham Reedbeds and Greenham Common), I’ve been spending some time taking part in more voluntary conservation activities locally. As part of an ongoing conservation project, BBOWT organise regular moth trapping sessions at Greenham Common and Thatcham Reedbeds. I’ve managed to get along to a couple of these during the recent warm weather, when moths have been abundant. I’ve spent a fascinating few hours peering at the moths coming in to light traps, in the company of local moth experts and BBOWT staff. Moths range from the tiny and drab to the large and spectacular, such as the Elephant Hawkmoth pictured above. Well worth dedicating a few hours to, as long as you don’t mind a late night (most moths generally come out to play around midnight or later) and the odd mouthful of midges.

Of course, not all moths come out at night. I photographed this 6-Spot Burnet Moth during an afternoon butterfly transect up on Greenham Common, where it was enjoying the sunshine and 32ºC temperatures (unlike myself and the other two volunteers carrying out the butterfly survey!). These stunning moths, with their dark metallic green wings spotted with scarlet, are often present in large numbers in open flower-rich habitats. The adults feed on nectar in wild flowers such as thistles and knapweeds, whilst the caterpillars munch Bird’s-foot trefoil Lotus corniculatus.

Butterfly transects are part of the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme: a specific walk route is followed on a weekly basis between April and September, with the species and numbers of butterflies seen being recorded and data fed back to the UKBMS. On the two transects I’ve done recently at Greenham, the warm weather had brought out quite a few species – including a pair of Purple Emperors, which we watched gliding about in the tree canopy in the south of Greenham Common. Purple Emperors have a habit of sitting on animal poo to feed on the salts in it, not something that people generally associate with butterflies! I didn’t manage to get photos of the Emperors, but I did get right up close to this Grayling (above), while it pretended to be a stone. Grayling butterflies are found in southern coastal areas and heathlands but are declining in the UK, with numbers down 45% in the last 40 years.

Another butterfly we spotted during our transects were Common Blues, including this mating pair who very obligingly sat still for some time for me to photograph them. (I suspect they were rather preoccupied.) The male is on the left, the female on the right; while the plant that they’re sitting on is Bird’s-foot trefoil, one of their caterpillar food plants.

It was a bit of a treat for me to allow myself some time for volunteering, but I’m very glad that I did so. After last year’s dismally wet and chilly summer, when the heatwave hit the UK this year I was determined to make the most of it. Seeing so many of our native butterflies and moths on the wing has been a great reward. Hopefully I’ll get a bit more time for exploring and finding wildlife as the summer goes on.

When the summer school holidays roll around I often think I’m going to have lots of ‘spare’ time for doing things in, but as usual the time seems to be disappearing! I take advantage of office time at home to do lesson planning, including preparing music for the local community choir (Sing The World) that I co-lead in Newbury. It’s lovely to be listening to and choosing music, but now comes the task of learning it. I teach acapella harmony songs by ear, singing the parts to folks until they’ve learned them, so my brain has to file away quite a lot of music – in addition to the choir I’m also leading a Mellow and Magical singing workshop in October. My chosen method of learning songs is to listen to them on my MP3 player and practice each harmony part, so at certain points in the day I can be seen in queues at the post office or in the supermarket, singing along to a tune that only I can hear. No-one seems to mind, however.

As I seem to be flitting about doing all kinds of things, it seems appropriate to finish this blog entry as I started it: with a butterfly. While a great deal of my current workload is preparing for the months ahead, I will try to remind myself to stay in the moment, and enjoy each one for what it brings me. I hope that your summer brings you many magic moments, and plenty more sunshine.

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly at Five A Day Market Garden

Flowers, sunshine, showers

The busy days of early spring and lambing have been followed by the equally busy months of April, May and early June, with my outdoor learning work filling most of my time. Despite our Arctic spring (courtesy of the jet stream’s wanderings), the seasons have been ever so slowly inching forwards, and although today is grey and rainy there are signs that we may have more of a summer this year than in 2012. Here’s hoping!

Most unusually, we did have a sunny and warm Bank Holiday Monday in early May. This was a great relief, as on the day I was paddling a home-made raft with a team of other volunteers down the Kennet and Avon Canal, taking part in the Crafty Craft Race to raise funds for Five A Day Market Garden where I work and volunteer. We paddlers worked in shifts to propel our catamaran-like craft the five miles eastwards from Kintbury to Newbury: you can see from the photo below that a fun time was had by all! (I’m the one paddling at the rear of the craft, in case you were wondering.)

Astonishingly, our ‘Ghostbusters’ team (hence the ‘spooky’ facepainting) won the race in our category! I put it down to all of us Five A Day Market garden volunteers getting lots of healthy exercise and fresh organic fruit and veg. (Plus having a superbly engineered craft, designed and built from an old swimming pool cover by Ghostbusters team member Dennis – kudos to him.)

Before the early May Bank Holiday weekend, warm days were rare enough that when they showed up I tried to get out to enjoy them as often as possible. One sunny weekend in late April I went out to see what spring flowers were in bloom, and discovered the most phenomenal bank of Cowslips Primula veris near Speen, thousands of plants in full flower.

Walking around Snelsmore Common the same weekend, I was struck by how many plants had been brought into simultaneous flowering by the warmth, after so many weeks of unrelenting cold. In Withy Copse, Wood Anemones Anemone nemorosa and Lesser Celandines Ranunculus ficaria were flowering together, starring the ground with white and gold. The large purple-blotched arrowhead leaves of Cuckoopint Arum maculatum were everywhere, while just the leaves of Bluebells Endymion nonscriptus were showing.

The trees were only just showing signs of waking up, with few buds opening to release the tips of new leaves, so there was still plenty of light reaching the ground layer where these fabulous woodland flora grow. In another woodland (Briff’s Copse near Hamstead Marshall) I found Moschatel Adoxa moschatellina, a diminuitive little plant that’s always been one of my favourites. Moschatel comes from the Greek word for musk, as the plant has a somewhat musky smell; its other common name is Town Hall Clock, so called because the five-sided flower is said to resemble the faces on a clock-tower.

Of course with the spring and summer flowers opening, there is finally some nectar and pollen for insects to find. With last year being such a dismal one for British butterflies, it’s even more pleasing than usual to see them on the wing on sunny days. I spotted this Peacock butterfly basking at Snelsmore Common in late April, before it swooped off at high speed as all the Vanessid butterflies seem to do.

Snelsmore Common was also the site for a singing picnic that I organised for local choir Sing The World, which I co-lead with my friend Tessa. We gathered down there on 3rd June to share food and drink, followed by an hour or so of harmony singing as the sun slowly set. A grand way to spend an evening, in my opinion. I love the way that singing unites people of all backgrounds and ages, there’s nothing quite like it. Currently I’m just starting to plan songs for my next singing workshop, which will be on 19th October at the lovely barn conference centre at Elm Farm Organic Research Centre near Newbury. I’m looking forward to it already!

With last year’s challenging weather it was nice to hear some good news about local wildlife conservation: the success of BBOWT’s Heritage Lottery Fund bid for the five-year Linking The Landscape project in West Berkshire. I attended a conference in mid-April organised by BBOWT, at which they were celebrating the previous five years’ conservation work done by BBOWT and West Berkshire Council on the local areas covered by the Living Landscape scheme. I had been involved both as a volunteer and as a freelance consultant in the Living Landscape scheme and the new funding bid, so I was very happy to hear the great news that all the sterling conservation work done so far by volunteers and professionals alike will not only be safeguarded but extended, for the benefit of local wildlife and local people.

The conference itself was an interesting day, with a fascinating speech on landscape-scale conservation projects across the UK by ecologist and Head of Planning and Environment for Forest Enterprise England, Jonathan Spencer. One of his points was that landscapes and wildlife are best protected when conservation is integrated with community needs, including economic needs – and vice versa. This is a message that I think many people, both environmentalists and developers, are still struggling to come to terms with. There’s often a sense in this crowded country of battle lines being drawn up, when actually it would make far more sense for conservationists, businesses and local communities to work together to develop ways of managing our land that allow for sustainable living and plenty of space for wildlife. Good food for thought!

During the afternoon of the conference we had the chance to take part in some workshops on a range of different topics: amongst other things I participated in a training session for monitoring the effects of grazing regimes on the heathlands and grasslands of the commons, with West Berkshire ranger Adrian Wallington and ecologist Thomas Haynes. The aim of this is to recruit volunteers to carry out simple plant surveys to help monitor the effects of the livestock grazing on vegetation on the commons, hopefully to improve management for all kinds of wildlife. What better way to spend an hour two on a sunny summer’s day, than sitting in the sunshine looking at flowers? If you agree, why not get involved by getting in touch with Adrian Wallington and asking him for more info.

Another highlight in April was going on a camp with Thatcham Young Rangers to Rushall Farm, in the Easter holidays. As the weather leading up to our camp had been pretty miserable, we kept our fingers crossed… And luckily, we were blessed with more or less dry days! The Young Rangers were total stars: most of them had never camped or slept away from home before, but they all mucked in and had a great time. We visited the farm animals, helped migrating toads reach their pond, built bivouacs in the woods, and sang so loudly round our campfire that they probably heard us in Reading! Because of the very cold night the kids pitched their tents inside the farm’s 300-year-old Black Barn, bedding down amidst much giggling. All of us adult helpers involved received beautiful handmade Thank You cards signed by every child, with the fervent request “Pleeeeeeease can we come and camp here again next year?”

We are now in the heart of the school visit season at Rushall Farm, with the field teaching team working at the farm most days of the week. In mid-May one of my fellow field teachers found some Early Purple Orchids Orchis mascula in Oaklands Copse at the farm, and was kind enough to tell me about them. Their spotted leaves had evidently been nibbled by deer or rabbits, but the pink flowers themselves had survived: a lovely sight amongst the trees.

Schools have also been coming to Five A Day Market Garden: Castleview School from Slough brought three classes of pupils on visits, which were great fun for children and adults alike. Not fazed by the showery weather, the staff and pupils got stuck into sensory and gardening activities, finally making three fabulous scarecrows, one of which is pictured here. The school brought a really positive and creative attitude with them that made working with their groups a total pleasure: I look forward to seeing them at Five A Day again next year!

On the gardening front, things are finally starting to get going on the allotment that I share with my friend Tessa. The rise in temperatures brought our strawberry plants into flower, which in turn brought out the honey bees from the hives in the corner of the allotment site. We’re hoping that this will be a better year for veg growing, as last year was pretty much a wash-out. So far the signs are promising: we’ve enjoyed our first crop of asparagus since creating our asparagus bed three years ago, our broad beans and sugarsnap peas are coming on a treat, and we finished off the last edible bits of last year’s brussels sprouts: the tender green tops and yellow flowers, which I discovered tasted jolly nice when incorporated into a sweet potato and feta salad.

As part of a planned new housing development, our allotments at Speen are threatened with possible relocation to a new site only 30 metres from the Newbury Bypass. Allotment members and the local community are currently being consulted about the proposals, with a public exhibition of plans for the suggested development at Speen Hall on 19th June. My feeling is that I support the provision of new social housing (of which some 40% of the proposed development is supposed to be), but no way do I want to be gardening on the edge of the bypass. Hopefully an alternative site for the allotments will be found which matches the peaceful current setting… Otherwise I may have to dust off my direct action techniques and dig out my D-lock! The plans are very much at the early consultation stage, so hopefully the feedback from allotment holders and others will produce a better solution for all concerned.

At least the slow start to the growing season this year has meant that I haven’t had to spend all my free time weeding the allotment, so I’ve been able to go out exploring for more wildlife. On a trip with the Young Rangers group to Padworth Common local nature reserve in late May, we were surprised to find a glowworm larva sitting on the edge of one of the corrugated iron sheets used as refuges by reptiles on the site.

Glowworms are actually a type of beetle: the adult females have two brightly-glowing segments on the underside of their rear abdomen, which they use to attract the flying male beetles on summer evenings. They feed on tiny snails and although said to prefer chalky or limestone soils can be recorded anywhere with suitable habitat: open vegetation such as grassland or hedges. The peak for finding glowing females is usually July, so why not have a look at a few sites in your locality and see if you can find some.

Staying with the theme of nocturnal and crepuscular wildlife, at the end of May I went on a bat monitoring and moth trapping evening organised by BBOWT and Berks and South Bucks Bat Group, on the southern side of Greenham Common. As the evening was mild (and teeming with midges and mosquitoes!) we were hoping for some good numbers of bats, but alas all the bat nest boxes we checked were empty and there were few calls picked up by our bat detectors. We were lucky enough to catch a couple of Pipistrelle bats in the mist nets set up by James Shipman and other BSBBG volunteers. These tiny bats can each consume up to 3,000 insects in a single night! After spending several hours being bitten despite liberal amounts of insect repellent, I was silently wishing the Pipistrelles good hunting.

The bat action being less than stellar, I joined the moth trappers for a few hours of identifying the various moths and other night-time insects lured in by the lamps and white sheets placed around the common. I love moth trapping: there’s something quintessentially English about sitting in the dark peering at moth identification books and fluttering beasties in bug pots, periodically bombarded by bemused cockchafer beetles. I’ve yet to meet a moth enthusiast who isn’t also a thoroughly nice person. Enthusiasm is infectious, and frankly I find the geekiness of entomologists rather loveable. I’m well aware that this qualifies me for geekdom myself: it’s an identity I happily embrace, along with my many other guises. Oh, and moth trappers always make sure that good biscuits are conveniently to hand, as you can see on the left-hand edge of white sheet.

In early June I went on a dragonfly and damselfly identification course, one of the many Developing Your Skills workshops that BBOWT run across Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. If you volunteer for BBOWT these courses are free of charge, but even if you pay, at £30.00 these courses are excellent value for money. This particular day was led by local ecology consultant Adrian Hickman, a very knowledgeable naturalist who can communicate what he knows in a clear and accessible way. Adrian’s morning classroom sessions focussing on identification features were reinforced by an afternoon fieldwork session on ponds around Greenham Common. And once again the sun was shining, so we had good amounts of sightings of Broad-bodied Chasers, Emperor Dragonflies, Large Red Damselflies (pictured above) and Azure Damselflies to name a few.

I’m looking forward to a summer of exploring nature and putting some of my newly-acquired skills to use: but one of the perks of working in environmental teaching is that even when I’m at work I get lots of opportunities to notice and appreciate the natural world. Recently I’ve started giving illustrated talks to groups, about subjects including wildlife gardening, foraging for wild foods and environmental education. It’s a genuine pleasure to be able to share my enthusiasm for the natural world with even more people, adults and children alike. A love of wildlife is catching, but unlike other infectious things, it’s really good for you! It’s good to see the BBC promoting their Summer of Wildlife, which will hopefully get more people turned on to nature in their own locality. I’ll certainly be out there: peering at moths, sniffing plants, studying dragonflies. However you plan to spend your summer, I hope you enjoy it too.

Wood anemones at Snelsmore Common

 

Spring, or something very like it

Spring Equinox is only four days away as I write this latest blog… And outside my flat windows, snow is hurling itself steadily down in large, fat flakes. Daffodils are starting to come out, lambs are being born at Rushall Farm, everyone that I know is heartily wishing that winter was over – yet it seems determined to hang in there just a little longer.

The photo above was taken at Rushall Farm in late January, a time when you rightfully could expect late snowfall. 2012 was such a dire year for farmers – and for field teachers! – that I was sincerely hoping that 2013 would shape up a little better. If you recall, March last year was mostly sunny, warm and dry: primroses and wood anemones were in flower and insects of all sorts were on the wing. So far, however, this March is turning out cold and wet. At Rushall, the tractors have only just been getting out to plough the fields, sowing spring barley and other crops.

Ideally many arable crops would be sown in late autumn, using winter wheat and other winter-sown cereals that usually give higher yields at harvest time. But soils have been so waterlogged it’s simply been impossible to cultivate them. Someone I was talking with this week told me that a farmer friend of theirs has made the decision not to sow any arable crops at all in 2013 – just to let the fields lie fallow and prepare them for sowing next year. And it’s not just crops that have suffered from 2012’s weather extremes: livestock too has been affected, with lambs coming to market at smaller sizes because of the poorer grazing available.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. However chilly the weather, young animals are being born. The Stabiliser cattle at Rushall Farm have had their calves, under cover in the barn away from the cold and wet. Lambing too is in full swing, with the lambing shed full of pregnant ewes and new lambs with their mothers. The cold weather meant that many sheep were late giving birth at first, but once a few had started all the rest began to follow suit. It has been so cold that I’ve had a few younger children in tears during school visits – mostly because they’ve been sent out inadequately dressed by parents. I’ve donated most of my own layers to chilly youngsters on particularly Arctic days, because the last thing I want is for them to be miserable. Some savvy schools have also started to get the hang of this outdoor learning thing, bringing extra clothing to give to kids with feckless parents. But I was wearing thermals and three layers of fleece earlier this week, and I was still cold.

With the Arctic winds bringing a wind chill factor of minus 11ºC, there were a couple of days when even inside the lambing shed it was cold enough for sheep’s drinking water to freeze. We make sure that all the animals have lots of straw bedding, fresh water and food, but I felt quite sorry for some of the lambs born this week – what a welcome to the world! A few older lambs have gone out into the fields with their mothers, fitted with fetching red plastic raincoats to keep out the worst of the weather.

Occasionally a ewe will die giving birth, or will have too many lambs to produce adequate milk for: when this happens these “orphan lambs” are placed under heat lamps (or in Farmer John’s kitchen) and bottle-fed milk by farm workers and visiting groups. Happily a lot of these orphans survive, becoming the cuddly darlings of visiting schoolchildren, Brownies, Guides, Rainbows et al. And bottle feeding an orphan lamb does have the advantage of keeping your lap nice and warm.

Before the hectic rush of lambing started at Rushall Farm, I was working with teachers from two local primary schools, running an INSET session in outdoor learning for their teaching staff. We spent a fun morning up on Greenham Common doing all kinds of spring-themed activities suitable for Early Years and Foundation age children, to give staff ideas for things they can do during their weekly “Muddy Mondays” outdoor learning sessions. It was (inevitably) a very cold day but a good time was had by all – hopefully I will be working with these schools again in the future.

In mid-February I taught an RSPB school field trip at Thatcham Nature Discovery Centre, including pond dipping in a blizzard! After such school visits we ask for feedback from the pupils as well as the teachers – and it was lovely to see how much the children had enjoyed and learnt during their half day session, despite the wintry conditions. However much we adults bemoan modern children’s lack of contact with nature and the great outdoors, it only takes one trip where they can experience hands-on contact with the natural world to start restoring the balance.

One of my remedies for dealing with the cold weather is to find satisfying indoor occupations. I put a spare Saturday afternoon to use in making home-made marmalade, using my mum’s recipe and Seville oranges bought at Newbury market. Seville oranges (only available in late January) are bitter rather than sweet, giving marmalade a wonderful tartness. I made about a dozen jars, many of which made nice presents to friends. As it was the first time I’d used my mum’s recipe I was rather chuffed with how it turned out – and my mum gave it the thumbs up too, after I gave her a jar for her breakfast toast!

Towards the end of January there was more work to be done creating a second large pond near Henley, beside the first one I helped with constructing at the start of the year. The weather was if anything colder and wetter, so it was muddy and heavy work. But now both ponds are pretty much finished, hopefully in time for the toads who hibernate in the woods to make use of them. I plan to visit the site later in the year to see how it’s looking. In the meantime, here’s a photo showing the first pond filling with water, with the second pond just visible in the back left corner of the picture.

The snow has just stopped and the sun has finally come out. I’m hoping that this is a harbinger of things to come very soon: spring arriving, with sunnier days and warmer temperatures. The Met Office is predicting next week that it will rise to as high as 7ºC – positively tropical. But I think my thermals will be in use for while yet, particularly as next week at Rushall Farm we are doing river studies with schools which means I’ll be standing in the River Pang for up to an hour at a time! Fingers crossed that my waders won’t spring a leak…

Snow falling on Newbury, 17th March 2013.