Thursday 27 October 2016

A First Love Rekindled

When your children are young I guess it's quite normal to expose them to your own hobbies and pastimes in the hope that they might share your interest. Both my sons went through this process. Birding-wise, I'm afraid too much twitching shrivelled any nascent enthusiasm there might ever have been. It is difficult to convince a child exactly why it was worth standing around in the freezing cold and wet to see the little brown thing. Angling, though, was another matter. My eldest, Rob, loved it...

Rob in 1995, aged 12, with a hefty perch from Startops Reservoir, Tring

Rob is still mad keen today, and his enthusiasm very infectious. His current circumstances find him working right here in Bridport, so I'm not surprised that he's rekindled my passion for an old flame and got me involved in planning a little fishing 'campaign' with him.

Decent coarse fishing venues near Bridport are non-existent; there are a few commercial day-ticket ponds and little else. You have go east to the Stour and Avon valleys to find the good stuff. Or, in the opposite direction, there is the Exeter Canal...

If the word 'canal' conjures images of picturesque and intimate little waterways dotted with moored narrowboats, think again. This is the Exeter Ship Canal; it is mostly rather large and deep for a canal. About six miles long, it runs from the city centre to Turf Lock*. The major attractions from an angler's perspective are twofold: 1) it is relatively underfished, and 2) it contains some very big carp and pike, or, more specifically, some very big unknown carp and pike. This latter point is so important - to fish such a water adds that crucial element of mystery. Mystery is part of what I loved about fishing as a kid, the notion that your next bite might come from some huge, unanticipated Leviathan. If you search the internet for clues as to what the Exeter Canal has produced in recent years you find scant information. This suggests to me that those who fish there do not particularly publicise their captures. Good. I know the place has serious big-fish history though, with pike to over 30lb and carp to 43lb 2oz, and that's good enough for me!

So in recent weeks we have walked the bank a couple of times in preliminary exploration. On Wednesday afternoon we covered about two miles from Turf Lock, up to just beyond the Topsham Ferry. Overlooking the RSPB reserve of Exminster Marshes this is a very scenic stretch, which is a big plus. Another big plus: not a single angler.

A weedcutter in action. The canal is very weedy right now, which all adds to the challenge of fishing it.

Alongside Exminster Marshes

The River Exe runs parallel to the canal. That's Topsham over there. Obviously.

This was as far as we walked. The elevated M5 in the distance, perhaps half a mile away.

I don't think we're going to fish it properly until January, but I do foresee one or two investigative efforts for pike before then, armed with some plugs, spinners and a bag of sprats maybe. Normally I would say "Watch this space" but I'm wondering just how much I ought to publicise any success we might have. After all, anyone can google 'exeter canal carp pike' and I wouldn't want inadvertantly to give away all our hotspots. Ha! What am I saying? Before I go all Secret Squirrel I should remember that I am expert at Blanking for England, and will probably catch nothing. In which case expect to read all about it!

* If you twitched the Devon American Robin then you've been to Turf Lock.

Tuesday 25 October 2016


Suffering is frequently an integral part of a hobby. Maybe not all hobbies, but certainly the ones that I've been drawn to over the years. Why is that? And why am I drawn to such pursuits? Take fishing, for example. I can recall many long, sweaty walks with a ton of gear; uncomfortable wet nights beneath inadequate shelter; bitterly freezing weather that numbed fingers and toes... Couple that lot with innumerable days when the fish refused to bite ('blanks') and the non-angler is bound to wonder why anyone would bother. As any fisherman will tell you, it's because of the rewards. Rewards which are all the sweeter for a bit of suffering.

Birding too. Have you ever walked out to Blakeney Point? Approximately one hundred miles of shingly slog. However, it's one thing to walk out there for a bit of on-spec birding, and quite another to twitch a bird at the very end. In August 1983 I did just that, arriving at Cley coastguards well before first light and then rushing out to the very end of the point as rapidly as possible to see a Royal Tern. None of us knew if the bird was going to be there, but that made no difference to the sense of urgency, and covering such a vast acreage of shingle at speed is utterly, utterly knackering. But the bird was there! Who cared that their legs felt like jelly or that they could hardly see through optics steamed up by sweaty brows? No one! All the suffering was worth it because of the reward.

Of course, the bird was actually a Lesser Crested Tern. And there was also the small matter of the walk back, but...

That particular twitch was a midweek affair, and the following weekend I did it all again so that Mrs NQS could see the bird too. At the time we had a 10-month-old baby to consider. No worries, I would simply carry him in our state-of-the-art Mothercare baby-backpack-thing. I have no idea how much Rob weighed at the time but, let me tell you, it quickly felt like I was carrying an ever-growing lump of concrete on piano-wire straps. Agony doesn't come close. By the time we got to the point I couldn't get the thing off quick enough. Predictably, the bird never showed. And then there was the walk back...

I swear, my shouder blades still carry the notches carved that day.

What about cycling? Well, cycling is all about suffering. For example, google 'pain cave'. Just about every time I go out on the bike there will be a degree of suffering; a ride doesn't seem complete without it. An easy way to suffer is to go uphill, and a steep upward gradient is virtually guaranteed to achieve the desired effect. Here is one of my favourites:

Strava tells me I've been up this hill 52 times. Let me describe it. The slope is quite steep to begin with, and soon ramps up to a vicious 18%, as marked in the screenshot above. This kind of gradient is impossible to cycle up 'easily'; here we have guaranteed pain. Muscles will be demanding oxygen that the blood is struggling to supply, so heart rate and breathing rate increase quickly in a vain effort to compensate. Your quads are rapidly accumulating lactic acid almost to the point of seizure. Then, just as your poor little legs are screaming for some relief...please!..they get it. Not much though. Just enough to recover suffiently to keep going. Oh, and is that the summit ahead, just after that next increase in gradient? No, it isn't. And in fact there is another false summit to negotiate before a genuine levelling off, and then a final steady rise to the trig point which marks the actual top. And that's it, done. One and three-quarter miles of heady joy.

I love Eggardon Hill. Why? Well, for the rewards, obviously. The satisfaction of overcoming the physical challenge, and, if I've been in the mood to really go for it, perhaps the pleasure of a decent time - for my age group, my best effort puts me third out of 77. So, I suppose there is a kind of triumph involved here. Or madness. Who knows? Anyway, in addition there is one other priceless reward...

An absolutely superb view!

Sunday 23 October 2016

Birding the Troughs

For most of this year I have felt almost no desire to go birding. I am neither surprised nor dismayed by this, it's just how I am. It has happened before.

My most enduring birding 'trough' lasted from the early 1990s to around 2004, some ten years or more. Nevertheless, during this hiatus I managed to find a Thrush Nightingale at Dungeness, a Black Kite on Scilly, and to co-find a Radde's Warbler at St. Margaret's Bay in Kent. The irony is not lost on me! However, these brief instances of birdy endeavour and consequent 'success' were respectively precipitated by a father-and-young-son stay at DBO, a holiday, and a day out with an old friend. But as soon as each was over, the optics were back in mothballs. At the time I was living in Rickmansworth, Herts, and my enthusiasm for local birding was basically nil.

I'm pretty sure my return to the fray in 2004 was prompted by our move to Devon a year or so earlier, and becoming aware that I was now living right on top of an underexploited patch with immense potential. The subsequent ten years saw that potential realised in spades. Seaton, the Axe Estuary and Beer Head are very much more on the birding map these days, and I'm happy to have played at least a small part in this. Still, that chapter is now closed. What next then?

In the last two or three years I have mostly struggled to get the juices flowing. The Cogden patch is undoubtedly good, and has gamely coaxed and cajoled, but with limited success thus far. Perhaps I have tried too hard to make it work. So, I've decided to stop pushing it and to simply let nature take its course. By that I mean just go with the flow, just pursue whatever does motivate me right now. And see where it leads.

During the last week I spent a couple of days working in Seaton. A cursory glance at the estuary revealed a decent crowd of gulls in front of the Tower Hide. Gulls still motivate me a bit. On Tuesday I ventured to the hide and picked out an adult and 1st-winter Med Gull, on Thursday a single 1st-winter. I am conscious that at this time of year the big gulls could easily be hiding a Yellow-legged or even a Casp. I am also conscious that a hide-full of birders could easily be overlooking either...

Thursday 20 October 2016

Signs of Life in Blogland

Is it true that blogging is dead, and if so, why do bloggers give up?

This was the basic theme for a couple of recent posts from Jonathan Lethbridge, aka Wanstead Birder.

Well, is blogging dead? No, despite an evident decline in bloggish activity, I don't think so. That said, it cannot be denied that many blogs are dead! Which brings us to the second question: why do bloggers give up? For me, this is the interesting one, because I have 'given up' on more than one occasion but never thought to analyse why. So, prompted by JL, I have done so, and am slightly surprised by my conclusions...

Right now I am well into middle age. Never, in all my years, have I not had an active hobby. There have been several. Some are history and will remain so, but one or two are, for want of a better expression, in my blood - birding and fishing, for example. Yet there is something about my personality which renders me quite incapable of pursuing any hobby at a steady, consistent level of effort ad infinitum. I am all peaks and troughs. And in the troughs I stop enjoying it, and therefore stop doing it.

So. Blogging. It's taken me a while to get it, but just recently the penny dropped: writing has become one of my hobbies! Mind you, I have never been one to keep a journal or diary, so why now, so late in life, and why blogging? Short, brutal answer: narcissism. The creative medium of blogging provides a budding writer with an instant audience and, through this, enough feedback to let him know whether his output has any merit. To me this is important. In any hobby I've ever pursued I have always tried to be as good at it as my potential will allow, and I guess writing is no different. An audience allows you to gauge the quality of your writing effort. And in the same way that a skillfully caught fish, or a pleasing half-marathon result, or finding and correctly identifying a scarce bird, all provide a sense of accomplishment, so too a good response to a blog post does likewise. Although I write for myself in the sense that I get satisfaction from the process of putting a post together (dare I say 'crafting a post'?) and do enjoy reading old posts from time to time, if I'm honest I am writing mainly for the reader. Let's be frank: rationalise it any way you like, but a public blog on the internet is a blog looking for an audience...

Anyway, none of this introspection has exactly answered the question 'why do bloggers give up?'

Re other blogs I can only speculate, though I expect the reasons are many and varied. But in my case the answer is easy. Now that I realise writing is one of my hobbies, it fits perfectly the pattern of every other hobby I have ever embraced. Peaks and troughs. Hardly auspicious perhaps. However, those hobbies where the bug has bitten deep have always - eventually - risen like a phoenix from the ashes. NQS is currently fluttering weakly with new life...

Monday 17 October 2016

It's Good to Have a Hobby or Two

On Saturday afternoon I drove to Blandford Forum in glorious sunshine with my bike in the back of the van. Eight of us had arranged a ride in the picturesque countryside between Wimborne and Shaftsbury. We had a circuit of some 65 miles before us; a few testing hills in the first half, then a coffee stop at Compton Abbas airfield before a flattish run back to Blandford. Nice. Conscious that the evenings are drawing in a bit now, I took my lights. Just on the off-chance...

Ten minutes before arriving at the café the heavens opened. We traipsed wetly in and sat down to big slabs of cake and various hot beverages. The talk was cheerfully gung-ho; we knew the weather forecast was bad, but we were men. Heading out again the rain was heavy. Very heavy. One consequence of a downpour is that all the razor sharp little flints which dry tyres normally shrug off with ease suddenly find themselves nicely lubricated, facilitating effortless passage through the sturdy tread of even a Continental Gatorskin. Soon: Pfftsssss-s-s-s-s...

Puncture #1

It's always the back wheel, the one where you have to manipulate the chain. It's mucky. It's fiddly too, and 10x more so in the wet. Anyway, the mood was "Ah well, not to worry...", a bit of banter and whatnot.

A short while later it was my turn. The routine is familiar, if thankfully quite rare: remove wheel, prize off one side of tyre, winkle out knackered tube, carefully check tyre for cause of puncture, dig out guilty flint, pop in new tube, curse tyre for reluctance to go back on, inflate, hope, refit wheel. As you can imagine, a rear wheel puncture takes several minutes to rectify. I noticed that the tips of my fingers had gone numb, and one or two of the lads were a bit chilled. Standing around in the rain in skimpy togs you certainly feel the temperature dropping as the afternoon heads rapidly toward evening. Anyway, off we went again, quite anxious to get the circulation going once more.

No chance of that.

Suffice to say we totalled six punctures between us, flirted with varying degrees of hypothermia and arrived back in the pitch dark, well after 7pm. All agreed: a truly memorable ride. Eager plans for the next are already afoot.

Cycling is one of my hobbies. Reading the above account, anyone can see the attraction. As well as the exciting risk of mild exposure in this particular case (sadly not guaranteed every time out) factor in the lung-busting joy of a long, steep hill, the exquisite agony of thighs that have been asked too much of, the little thrill as you realise you left your pump at home again...

Yes. Irresistible.

I have other hobbies of course. Birding is one. I suppose blogging kind of is too. In fact this post was going to be all about blogging...and then I had that brilliant ride.