Sunday, June 16, 2013

Photo-A-Day 16th June 2013

As I stated in the previous post, most of the Farne Islands are actually just rocky outcrops and the low lying ones make navigating around the area very treacherous indeed.

After many discussions and requests, the Longstone Lighthouse was built in 1826 and was manned by William Darling and his daughter Grace on 7th September 1838 when the paddlesteamer "Forfarshire" hit the nearby rocks at 3am in terrible weather and broke in two.

Knowing the weather was too bad for the lifeboat to leave nearby Seahouses, William and Grace set off in a 21ft rowing boat to help the survivors. They returned to the lighthouse with 4 or 5 survivors (reports differ) and while Grace remained with the sole female survivor, William and the other 3 (or 4 !!) went back and gathered up 4 more.   

There were other survivors who managed to leave the ship in a lifeboat but a total of 42 of the 62 people on board, died that night.

Grace Darling, whether because of her age (22) or the fact she was female, became an instant heroine and was praised by the nation and received a large financial reward for her courage.

Last week we passed close to the lighthouse on the boat trip to see the birds on Inner Farne and despite the choppy waves, I managed to get my own photo of it.

The name of Grace Darling is almost as well known here today as that of nursing pioneer, Florence Nightingale but while Florence lived to the ripe old age of 90, Grace died of tuberculosis at 26.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Photo-A-Day 15th June 2013

Well I've been back a few days after my "sudden impulse" 6 day tour around the NW of Scotland and what a trip it was. The weather was perfect every day and the scenery was absolutely spectacular.

In all, I took 624 photos and video clips so for the next few blog posts, I'll put up a photo from the tour despite putting most of them up already on my Facebook page.  I know there are blog readers who don't use Facebook so for those who do, sorry that you have to see them again !

Actually this first photo is from the first day of the tour before I actually reached Scotland.   I went up the east side of England, through Newcastle to Whitley Bay, a seaside resort I'd last been to about 30 years ago. Then I drove on to Seahouses where I'd booked online to go out on a 2.5hr boat trip to Inner Farne, one of the many Farne Islands that lie just off the coast of Northumberland.

These islands are famous bird sanctuaries and my main reason for going on the boat trip was to see some puffins as it was breeding season and many thousands were on Inner Farne.

The boat was due to set sail at 2pm and after spending too much time in both Newcastle and Whitley Bay, I only just made it.  Once onboard I was able to relax and soon we were passing the smaller islands, just a collection of rocks really, which were covered in both birds and their poop.  A LOT of poop.  In fact from a distance it seemed there was snow on the rocks !

As we approached Inner Farne, I wondered why the people from the previous boat trip were waiting at the dock with umbrellas up and wearing waterproofs. Then I noticed the people on 'my' boat were doing the same and as we disembarked, I found out why.

All along the edge of the long wooden pathway up to the main viewing area, Arctic Terns had nested and while one sat on the egg(s), its partner would dive bomb anyone passing by. They used their long needle like beaks to stab any part of our bodies that they could, usually our heads, and if that didn't work, they'd follow it up with pooping on us.   

It was like the school hill scene from "The Birds" except in our case, ALL the birds were real.  Parents covered their kid's heads with anything they could and I was glad I'd taken a baseball cap and a light hooded rain jacket (a golf jacket actually as I thought it might rain) as I needed both !  Maybe it was the jacket's black colour but in any case, having run the gauntlet twice, I was relieved that I avoided any poop and despite some close calls, my head was intact.  Others were not so lucky and many were liberally covered in the white stuff.    

Up at the viewing area on the very edge of the cliff, birds were everywhere, on every surface.  From Cormorants to Black-Headed Gulls, Guillemots to Razorbills, it was a twitcher's dream !  Of all the breeding birds on the Farnes, Puffins are by far the most common with over 36,000 pairs last year. There were several Shag fights going on over nesting areas and some were pretty vicious.  Eggs were bumped out of nests as parents fought for possession of a nest and residence was no guarantee.  The noise was deafening and off to one side, the superior Puffins were keeping their distance and did not want to be involved with the rough stuff.  Being burrow nesters, they didn't need to.

They were settled quite some distance away but with my 200mm zoom lens, being able to rest it on a solid fence and then enlarging the resulting photos via Photoshop, I got some decent photos.  This one is my favourite.

Being on the rocks, the Puffins were all adults as the Pufflings would've been safe in their burrows further away. I really wanted to see and photograph Pufflings but it was not to be. 

Surviving the fierce Terns on the way back to the boat, we headed to shore and then I drove up the coast and crossed into Scotland. A couple of miles further on I got to my b&b by 7pm. This was the only one I'd pre-booked as I knew they were plentiful in Scotland and I didn't want to be tied down each evening.  I'd just start looking from about 6pm or 7pm and that way I was free to go as far along the route each day as I wanted.

That plan worked out perfectly as I got great b&b's every evening ranging from £25 to £35 which I thought was excellent value for money.

More tomorrow.............  

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Photo-A-Day 4th June 2013

No time for much of a byline today as I'm getting ready for a sudden departure in the morning as I'm off on a road trip to the tip of the UK, John O'Groats at the top of Scotland.  

The weather forecast is semi decent for the next few days so I'm being all impetuous and just going !

Anyway here is a photo I took yesterday inside the ruins of Fountains Abbey on a glorious day which wore me out as I walked miles.

That's it.

Donno when I'll be back so there may or may not be regular posts or "photo-a-day" posts for a wee while, the noo.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Photo-A-Day 3rd June 2013

The following is a classic example of how, when I'm leaving some 'exotic' location, I sometimes say "well I'll never be back here again" as those words seem to ensure that I will be !

In December of 2005, Deb, Den and I went on a cruise which took in 9 Southern Caribbean islands.  One of the first was St. Maarten or to be more accurate, Sint Maarten as we went to the southern half which belong to The Netherlands and not the northern half which belong to Ze French !  Zut alors.

With our cruise ship berthed with several others at Wathey Pier, we got a water taxi across Great Bay to the capital 'city' of Philipsburg. We strolled along the main street with all its gaudy tourist shops and then hit the beach for a spot of R&R before heading back to the ship.  

You don't get much time when visiting 9 islands on a cruise !

It was only when we were sailing to our next destination that I remembered the main claim to fame of Sint Maarten, namely Princess Juliana International Airport, or more precisely, its airstrip.

Yes this is the airport where pilots have to come in so low over the beach that lies just by the start of the airstrip that those on the beach can almost touch the undercarriage.  Then when large jets are taking off, they use the same airstrip and as they increase power for the start of takeoff, the hardy, or foolhardy souls on the beach line up to be blasted back down the beach and, in some case, end up in the water.

None seem to care that a stone or other object could also be blown back at them with potentially fatal results.  This is the jackass generation after all and they live for the thrill.

So in 2005 as we headed towards another awesome Caribbean sunset, I uttered those infamous departing words as I really did want to return to go onto that beach when a large jet was landing. I really didn't think it would happen though.

Ha !

Fast forward to April 2010 and as part of a more relaxing cruise (only 4 islands this time), we were back in Sint Maarten.  This time I wasn't going to miss the opportunity of going to the airport and Maho Beach and so we hired a taxi and went straight there. As they approach the beach, car drivers have to look carefully to make sure no planes are about to take off or else they could end up closer to the beach than they'd like to be. 

Our driver dropped us off at the Sunset Bar, just past the beach and we walked back to the mid point to wait for the Air France jet that was due to land just after noon.  As the time approached, the word soon went around those on the beach and all eyes scanned Simpson Bay towards the horizon.  Suddenly a sharp eyed kid next to us said he saw it and in no time the dot became a recognisable plane.

I was poised with my still camera and passed my video camera to Deb so we'd be sure to record the event one way or another......or even both.  I wanted to pan around to follow the plane to get the classic view I'd seen so often on the internet.  I also wanted to zoom in as much as possible so the plane would fill the viewfinder but in doing so, I overcooked it and chopped off the tail of the plane !

I was so annoyed with myself and although I fired off a series of photos, this was the side view I really wanted to be perfect. Hey ho.

Maybe third time lucky !  Who knows.

 Not long afterwards, a large jet taxied to the end of the airstip close to the beach, turned around and lit up its afterburners !  From the relative safety of the side of the beach, we watched dozens of people lining up to be blown away and getting their wish.  Some did in fact get blown into the water but I think theyere showing off and did the last few yards themselves with no help from the rapidly departing jet.

It was quite an experience and one I'll remember for a long time. Worth going back for !

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Photo-A-Day 2nd June 2013.

Between 1989 and 1998, I'd visited the US 13 times and been to every state except Alaska and Hawaii. On 9 occasions, I'd gone for 3 or 4 weeks in the summer and on 4 other occasions, I'd spent 2 weeks over Christmas with friends in Georgia.

Then in April 2000, I decided I wanted to go for a longer trip and so I took a 6 month work sabbatical and had a fabulous time with friends Debby and Dennis in Michigan.  We crammed so much into those 6 months that hardly a day went by without us being off touring somewhere.

We went on a long "trip out west" by driving across the northern states to Seattle, then down the coast to San Francisco before heading east through the southern states and finally turning north back to Michigan.  More full rectangle than full circle !

We also went on a family float trip which involved blowing up huge inner tubes and gently floating down a river on a blisteringly hot summer's day with a stop for a picnic along the way.

A drive down to the Florida Keys was also a highlight as it was my first time in Key West and we also found time to get tickets to watch the launch of shuttle mission STS101 from the Kennedy Space Centre on the drive home.

So all in all I'd had a fabulous time and as a thank you to my hosts and also to cram in one final trip, we flew to Las Vegas in late October and stayed at the newly opened Aladdin Hotel & Casino. In fact it was so new that final touches were taking place and some areas were still to complete.

It was a fabulous hotel with 37 floors and 2,456 rooms and we had stunning views overlooking the Vegas Strip and were able to look down on the beautiful musical water display at the Bellagio "across the road."  It was even better at night, as most things are in Vegas. 

I only had my little 1mp Kodak digital camera back in those days so the quality of the photos weren't great but this one will always remind me of both that Vegas trip and also the US 2000 holiday as a whole.

The Aladdin had 2 rooftop swimming pools and during our stay, I got some great outdoor views looking down on the Strip. Sadly most of those Vegas photos were lost when my external hard drive was corrupted so I'm left with just the one above, taken through the room window with the associated reflections.

But I guess that, in a way, knowing this was the exact view we had from the room window adds to the memory.

Nothing lasts for long in Vegas and within 3 years, The Aladdin had gone into bankruptcy, to be sold to Planet Hollywood. By 2007 it was fully rebranded as The Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino which, amazingly, it still is today ! 

Anyway, when we got back to Michigan, it was very hard to think I was at the end of this wonderful US trip.  So I started to find out what would be needed to stay longer !  The IBM sabbatical 'rules' said I could have a year off and so they had no problem giving me another 3 months to add to the initial 6.  The US authorities were ok with this too but as a visitor visa is only good for 6 months, I had to pay a fee to have it extended.  Finally I paid $100 and had my return flight date altered.


Did we sit around for those 3 months ?  Hell no.  In November we had another road trip to Key West and in December we went on a Caribbean cruise, my first of many !!

I vividly remember getting back to my desk in January 2001.  I stood for some time looking at it and thinking "I don't want to do this anymore."  The time off hadn't fired me up for a return to work.  Quite the opposite. Despite being only 48, I started planning for my retirement at 50, the earliest date possible. Fate was with my plans as a few months later IBM wanted volunteers for early retirement and my hand shot up so fast I almost pulled a muscle.

And so it was that on 25th June 2001, on my 49th birthday, I retired.  I got a sweet package from IBM which included a generous lump sum to cover me for the year before I would be able to get my private pension. 

And where did I go for my first trip as a retiree ?

On 7th November 2001 I flew to America for 4 months !!

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Photo-A-Day 1st June 2013

Five years ago this month I went on a short canal boat trip with Daphne and Stephen along a stretch of the Leeds - Liverpool canal starting just south of Skipton and turning around at Barnoldswick. 

Despite crossing from Yorkshire into Lancashire, it was probably only a round trip distance of about 15 miles as the crow flies but as canals don't go in straight lines, it was more like 26 miles we travelled.  Also, if that crow had been on a canal boat going at about 4mph and also been able to work the many locks that raise and lower the canal waters up and down the sloping terrain, it would've taken it 3 full days to make the trip.  

Which is how long it took us. 

As long as you have someone with you fit enough to work the locks, a canal trip is a wonderful way to chill out and see the stunning countryside of the UK from a unique perspective. After years of volunteer work cleaning and restoring many disused stretches, there are now 2,200 miles of navigable canals in the UK with the vast majority of these miles being in England.  The Leeds - Liverpool canal is 127 miles long so we only saw a very small part of it but it was more than enough to make me want to see more.

Despite occasionally crossing over or under a main road, the canal took us out into the countryside, well away from the busy traffic on those congested roads and after just a short time from setting off, the loudest noise we heard was the relaxing (and comforting) putt putt of the boat engine as it pushed us gently along.  Wildlife took no notice of our peaceful passing and swans and other waterbirds were our constant companions. 

As it got dark, we'd simply tie up by the side of the canal for the night and have supper in the cozy surroundings of a local pub before returning to the boat to sleep.  

It was an idyllic break and often I'd just stretch out on the top of the boat and watch the world go by at 4mph.    

Here is a 15 minute video I put together at the time and it gives a good impression of the relaxing weekend we had.....well apart from working those damn locks !

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