High tides and volant voles

An unplanned visit to the flooded Dee Marshes is rewarded with a wildlife spectacle.

Catching up on Twitter in a Wirral Starbucks the morning after Storm Eleanor, I read the following:

@RSPB_BurtonMere Burton Marsh completely flooded! Lunchtime’s high tide could be spectacular! Get down to Parkgate!

An immediate change of plan. Twenty minutes later, I pull into the marsh-side car park at Parkgate. There are dozens of birders already there, all of them far better equipped (and insulated) than me. So I head over to a quiet corner and take shelter behind a convenient wall.

The Dee Marshes only flood a few times a year. The signs of the previous high tide are unmistakeable: flattened marsh grass; plastic jetsam; rank, salty mud. A second flood seems unlikely: an hour before high tide, there’s only the customary distant glint of water way across the marshes near the Welsh bank.

I’m soon joined by a couple of birders. We trade bird tales as the waters slowly encroach into the marsh. It’s bitterly cold. I’m ill-prepared for such conditions, but it’s worth it. There are far more birds flying about than usual: gulls, geese, ducks, waders, starlings, herons, egrets. I’m told I just missed a male hen harrier. I’m immediately compensated with a brief sighting of a short-eared owl scudding low across the rising water channels.

The birds become more agitated as the tide reaches the scrape. A water rail comes tearing across the marsh like a roadrunner and vanishes beneath the wall at our feet. He’s followed by dozens of terrified voles, many of which are swept up by gulls and gobbled down whole, mid-air. Others are dropped during gullish squabbles. One jettisoned vole flies so close that all three of us duck. It splats into the soft marsh and promptly disappears: a lucky escape. I take another look for the hiding water rail. He spots me, and makes a bolt for it across a shallow pool, disappearing round the corner of the wall.

I’m shivering uncontrollably now. My heated car-seat beckons, but I manage to hold out for another half-hour or so, until I can no longer feel my fingers.

What a spectacular start to the new year!

Lapwings over the Dee Marshes.
The rising tide reaches the scrape
The rising tide reaches the scrape.
Water rail
Water rail.
Two black-headed gulls squabble over a vole
Two black-headed gulls squabble over a vole.

2017: a year in photos

My seventh annual video slideshow review of the year.

For the last few years, at this time of year, I've produced a video slideshow of photos to sum up my year just gone. Here's the 2017 video:

Consistent beyond reproach, as in previous years, this year's slideshow contains 97 photographs.

The background music, Placid Reflux, is also by Yours Truly. I don't have an ounce of musical ability. Thank goodness for Garageband!

See also: Previous years’ video slideshows

My book is finally out!

I’m delighted to announce the launch of my book ‘On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk’.

24 November 2017

158 years ago today saw the publication of my hero Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Darwin was staying on the edge of Ilkley Moor at the time, just 13 miles as the curlew flies from where I type these words.

What better excuse could I possibly need for choosing today to launch my own medium opus inspired by another Yorkshire moor…

I’m delighted to announce that my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk is now available as both a paperback and Kindle ebook on,, and other international Amazon websites.

On the Moor covers (front and back)

On the Moor shows how a routine walk in the countryside is enhanced by an appreciation of science, history, and natural history. It covers an eclectic mix of topics, with each chapter being inspired by something I encountered or was thinking about during one of my regular walks over the last 25 years on the Moor above my home. These topics include:

  • Charles Darwin’s weird experiments and ailments;
  • the 17th-century skeptic Sir Thomas Browne;
  • Celtic languages;
  • Bronze Age burials;
  • evolution’s kludgy compromises;
  • bird migration;
  • DNA barcoding;
  • skull anatomy;
  • where Earth got its water;
  • the mapping of Great Britain;
  • grouse disease;
  • Scott of the Antarctic;
  • how to define a species;
  • Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath;
  • the Brontës;
  • the Laws of Thermodynamics;
  • why the sky is blue (and sunsets red);
  • the Greenhouse Effect;
  • the songs of skylarks;
  • snipe courtship;
  • vapour trails;
  • rooks’ faces;
  • the best way to cook a wheatear.
  • …Oh, and there’s even a plane crash!

I appreciate I’m a bit biased, but I think you’ll like it.

But don’t feel you have to take my word for it. Here’s what nature writer Neil Ansell had to say about On the Moor:

Richard Carter’s fascinating exploration of his local grouse-moor in West Yorkshire digs deep into natural history, human history, prehistory, and the history of science. His writing is grounded, insightful, and frequently hilarious, and he shows how falling in love with your own local patch can be a gateway to the whole world.

Well, exactly, Neil! (The cheque’s in the post.)

…Are you still here? What are you waiting for? GO AND BUY MY BOOK, DAMMIT!

Grandma’s organ donation

On the mysterious arrival, and equally mysterious disappearance, of a Wurlitzer organ.

Some time in the late 1970s, a Wurlitzer organ appeared out of nowhere in the corner of our dining room. It was a big wooden affair with a folding lid, two keyboards one above the other, and a whole bunch of switches, dials and pedals.

You could tell it was a Wurlitzer organ because it had the word WURLITZER emblazoned across it in garish gold letters. Off to the right, more discreet lettering bore the legend Crane & Sons Ltd., Liverpool & London.

It turned out my grandma’s sister had recently decided to replace her electric organ. Never one to miss out on a bargain, grandma had bought the old organ for my sister and me. The first my sister and I (and, I recently learnt, our parents) knew about grandma’s generous gift was the day it landed in our dining room.

When you turned on the power, the organ made an alarming thump followed by a more subdued humming noise. It took several minutes to warm up. While you waited, you got to flip the switches and turn the dials into the required configuration. There was a large collection of black switches labelled with the names of musical instruments: violins, cellos, glockenspiel, guitar, horns, and so on. The most notable thing about these switches was, no matter which combination you selected, the sound emanating from the organ remained essentially unchanged. It seemed to me Wurlitzer could have saved themselves, and us, a whole lot of bother if they had simply had a single switch labelled electric organ. There were also switches to alter the bass and treble settings, which did at least seem to make some appreciable difference to the din, as did one labelled Sustain. But our favourite switches were the three labelled Vibrato, the options being On, Fast and Full. We always flipped all three, which made the notes more wobbly.

In case you haven’t already worked it out, I should perhaps make it clear that, with the exception of grandma’s electric-organ-playing sister and their long-dead half-brother (of whom, more shortly), I come from an entirely unmusical family. Don’t get me wrong: we all enjoy listening to music, but actually playing the stuff is another matter entirely. To this day, I remain in awe of anyone who can string a bunch of notes together. It’s voodoo, as far as I’m concerned.

The organ came with a matching stool whose seat lifted to reveal a compartment for storing sheet music. Inside we found a thick book of ‘popular tunes’. Presumably, these were tunes popular with the sort of people who enjoyed a good sing-along around the family Wurlitzer: Danny Boy, We’ll Gather Lilacs, Abide With Me, and a host of other songs my sister and I had never heard of. There was also a photocopy of the music for the song Why Does a Red Cow Give White Milk When it Always Eats Green Grass? Although we didn’t know the tune, my sister and I had at least heard of this one, as it had been written by grandma’s half-brother, the first-world-war pilot, variety entertainer, and pantomime dame Hal Miller.

Rather than arranging for costly music lessons, Dad, whose own musical curriculum vitae began and ended with an appearance in H.M.S. Pinafore at secondary school, decided to wait until either my sister or I began to demonstrate any sort of natural aptitude for, or even vague interest in, playing the organ. To ease our path to musical greatness, he hit upon the idea of labelling the Wurlitzer’s keys. He spent an entire wet afternoon carefully applying Letraset dry-transfer letters to both rows of white keys. The black lettering wouldn’t show up on the black keys, so those were left unlabelled.

All that remained was for my sister and me to consult the popular song book, choose a song we actually knew the tune to, read out the letters above the words of the song, and bang the keys with the same letters on the Wurlitzer. Just about the only song we did recognise was Silent Night. I can still recite the letters to this day:


Getting on for four decades later, Silent Night still comprises my entire musical repertoire.

Where was Mum in all this? Silently fuming. After a while, not so silently. From the day it arrived unannounced to take over the dining room, Mum began to drop subtle hints about how awfully big the Wurlitzer was. Within weeks, she was referring to it as ‘that damn thing’ and was refusing to dust it. In later years, she took to kicking it as she hoovered nearby.

The circumstances of the Wurlitzer’s eventual disappearance were as mysterious as those of its arrival. In 1986, I returned home from university to find the organ gone. Its alcove in the corner of the dining room had been reclaimed by its former occupant: Mum’s precious, well-dusted Ercol sideboard.

The Wurlitzer was never mentioned in polite conversation again.

Orion’s belt-buckle

In celebration of my adopted star.

When I was about fourteen, I decided to adopt a star. I was standing on my parents’ patio on a glorious chilly evening. The stars were out in relative abundance for the suburbs. I thought I should pick a star so, wherever I saw it in future, I would be able to relate to it; to imagine it twinkling above my home.

I knew how to find the North Star, but that seemed too obvious a choice, so I sought out the short line of three evenly spaced stars I’d noticed many times before. I found them to the south-west, hanging in the darkness above the garage, and, reckoning it would be the easiest to remember, chose the middle star to be my star. I didn’t know at the time that the three stars in question comprised Orion’s Belt; and I’ve only just found out from Wikipedia that my star goes by the Arabic-derived name Alnilam, meaning string of pearls. Alnilam, it turns out, is a blue-white supergiant: the 29th brightest star in the night sky. Not bad for a humble belt-buckle.

The constellation of Orion photographed from Anglesey. Alnilam is shown dead centre.

Although the stars of Orion’s Belt look to be in a straight line, that’s only because we see them from our particular vantage point in the galaxy. In reality, Alnilam is roughly half as far away again from us as its two apparent companions, Alnitak and Mintaka: very roughly 1,340 light-years to their 800.

Just think about that for a second. In fact, actually count out one second. Go on, I mean it, I’ll wait…

In the time it takes to count a second, a beam of starlight travels 300,000 kilometres through space (that’s 186,000 miles in old money). That’s slightly farther than the most reliable car I ever owned travelled during its entire lifetime. Or, to put it another way, if you could somehow steer its course, a beam of light could travel around the earth seven-and-a-half times per second. Yet the light of Alnilam, striking our retinas when we happen to glance up at it on a chill winter evening, left that star shortly after the Romans abandoned Britain, several hundred years before the Norman Conquest, in an era we are no longer supposed to refer to as the Dark Ages. How unimaginably vast is our Milky Way Galaxy? Yet it is only one of an estimated two-trillion galaxies in the universe. Two trillion. That’s a two followed by twelve zeros: 2,000,000,000,000. How unimaginably insignificant are we in the vast non-scheme of things?


With hindsight, I suppose I could have chosen my star more carefully: the constellation of Orion isn’t visible from the UK for three months of the year, from May to July. It’s still up there, of course, but at that time of year Orion rises and sets during the hours of daylight, so is banished from our skies by the brightness of the sun.

But Orion’s absence during the northern hemisphere’s summer months makes its reappearance in our night skies in late summer and early autumn a cause for celebration. Indeed, for many years, I’ve marked my ‘official’ start of autumn by the first pre-dawn sighting of Orion over the gate at the end of our driveway. There he stands, just like last year, facing west, club raised aloft: just as he will have stood, long before the story of Orion the hunter was invented, as the Bronze Age inhabitants of the Moor above my house gazed out on the same pre-dawn sky; just as he stood almost four decades ago, that starlit evening above my parents’ garage; just as he will stand, for many years to come, when I am long gone.

Yet perhaps I shouldn’t be so sanguine about Orion’s endurance. Like everything else, the configuration of the night sky evolves with time. Constellations change shape; new stars are born; old ones die. Ultimately—very soon by astronomical timescales—my adopted star, Alnilam, is likely to go out in a blaze of glory: a massive supernova. Indeed, perhaps it already has. With the speed of light as the limiting factor for spreading news throughout the universe, Alnilam might have exploded a thousand years ago, and we still wouldn’t know a thing about it for another 300 years or so.

So maybe I should enjoy Alnilam’s pin-prick of Dark Age light in the night sky while I still can.

That’s certainly my intention.

‘Spiritual’ won’t do

In which I seek a better word to describe a profoundly uplifting sensation.

There’s this wonderful sensation I get from time to time. I’m hoping you do too, otherwise I’m going to sound like a total weirdo as I try to describe it.

I’m usually outdoors when it happens, often at some place that means a lot to me: approaching the trig point on the Moor above my home, for example; or gazing out to sea from my favourite headland. It also happened, totally unexpectedly, the first time I saw Michelangelo’s statue of David in Florence, and when I first heard a full-blown orchestra playing live.

But it can happen in the most mundane situations too, such as at our compost heap after dark. I’ll be standing there, holding my small bucket of potato peelings, looking out at the lights across the valley, when, without warning, some sort of switch gets flipped and everything goes into ultra-high-definition. My senses seem magnified somehow. I suddenly become far more aware of the world around me: of the lonesome dog-barks echoing in the distance; of the vastness of the sky, and of the darkness between the stars; and of the cold air sending goose-pimples erupting along my forearms. It’s very much like that feeling you get when you come out of the cinema, back into the light and noise of the real world, and everything feels so utterly, well, real.

I’ve mentioned these experiences to friends. They claim to know exactly what I’m on about. They say they have them too. But they then almost inevitably go on to use the word ‘spiritual’. Which makes me wonder whether we’re talking about the same thing at all. The word ‘spiritual’ is precisely the wrong word, you see. No, that’s not it at all.

It’s not just the word’s religious connotations. As a devout atheist, I take great exception to such profound and uplifting experiences being hijacked in the name of religion. But that’s not my real problem with the word. ‘Spiritual’ is derived from the Latin ‘spirare’, meaning to breathe. In this respect, it’s entirely appropriate: the sensations I’ve tried to describe are breathtaking. The same Latin root also gives us the word ‘inspirational’. Perfect. But the word ‘spiritual’, to me at least, clearly implies the non-physical. Which is where it totally misses the point.

The thing is, you couldn’t get more physical than these sensations I’m trying to describe. When I reach the trig point on top of the Moor, and the whole hi-def thing kicks in, I suddenly become hyper-conscious of the material nature of my existence. This is not the Matrix. This is no dream. I am here. This is now. The air filling my lungs is cool. It is made of molecules. So am I. So is everything else. There is rock beneath the heather. I can taste the sea on the wind. All this stuff is real: water and rock; flesh and bone; physics and chemistry. Real is all there is. It’s us and the universe, my friend. Accept no alternatives.

Trig point
Trig Point S4643, on the Moor.

I’ve struggled to come up with a more appropriate adjective than ‘spiritual’ to describe episodes like these. The trouble is, the religiously inclined and the new-agers have already (mis)appropriated all the best ones: ‘enlightening’, ‘illuminating’, ‘uplifting’. For a while, I quite liked the word ‘lucid’, until it occurred to me that the same word is also used to describe dreams, which again misses the point entirely.

What I’m trying to describe is the sensory equivalent of an adrenaline rush. Something that jolts you out of yourself into the physical universe. A reality rush, if you will.

Do you know what the hell I’m on about? Can you think of a better term than ‘spiritual’ to describe these experiences? One which can’t possibly be misconstrued as endorsing any sort of belief in the non-physical or the supernatural? One which embraces the physical reality of such astonishing sensations?

Or is it just me being a total weirdo after all?

Undermining religious tradition: a time-honoured religious tradition

Religious tradition has been being ‘undermined’ in Britain since recorded history began—most of the time by people of a distinctly religious persuasion.

Hardly a silly season seems to go by without someone—they’re usually from the Church of England—moaning about how those intolerant secularists seem hell-bent on undermining time-honoured British religious tradition. By which, they usually mean time-honoured English religious tradition.

The latest manufactured moral outrage came courtesy of the Archbishop of York, whose bandwagon was soon jumped on by none other than the Prime Minister. The cause of their holy indignation? Cadbury and the National Trust have had the temerity to advertise Egg Hunts, rather than Easter Egg Hunts. Well, there go hundreds of years of Christian-appropriated pagan religious tradition down the plughole!

Playing the ‘tradition’ card smacks of desperation. The circular argument is that we should carry on doing things the way we’ve always done them because we’ve always done things that way. It’s hardly the most compelling of arguments. Imagine if the Druids had used it when the Romans arrived: “We should carry on daubing ourselves in woad, worshipping trees, and sacrificing the odd virgin because we’ve always daubed ourselves in woad, worshipped trees, and sacrificed the odd virgin.” Or if the Romans had used it when Christianity arrived: “I don’t like the sound of this new-fangled ‘Jehovah’; Jupiter has far more charisma.” Or if the Anglo-Saxons had used it when the first Roman and Celtic Christian missionaries landed: “You can’t get rid of Tiw, Woden, Thunor and Frigg—over half the bloody week’s named after them!”

The fact is, religious tradition has been being ‘undermined’ in Britain since recorded history began—most of the time by people of a distinctly religious persuasion. Indeed, you could argue that undermining time-honoured British religious tradition is something of a time-honoured British religious tradition. In general (albeit in somewhat biased hindsight), it has usually been seen as a good thing.

If we had never undermined time-honoured British religious tradition, this island would presumably still be pagan, or worshipping at the cult of the Roman emperor, or Catholic (the same thing, in some people’s eyes). If time-honoured British religious tradition had prevailed, there would be no Church of England, no Methodists, no Quakers, no British Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus, no re-imagined Druids, and no self-styled Wiccans. If we had stuck with time-honoured British religious tradition, sermons would still be in Latin, we would all be heading off on crusades, and kids would be getting married at 14.

We cringe in hindsight—or, at least, I hope we all do—at many of the religious rules, ideas and practices which were once seen as sacrosanct, but are now seen as abominations. We live in a modern world: of course we don’t want to go back to witch-burnings, the ‘evil-spirit’ theory of disease, and the Genesis account of creation. I appreciate I’m setting up a staw-man here: to most modern British religious adherents, the very suggestion is ridiculous. Yet such nonsense was once part of our proud, time-honoured religious tradition.

As you will probably have gathered, I’m not a religious person. But I have some well-meant advice for those of you who are, and who like to play the ‘tradition’ card. It’s time to move on. Stop blaming the secularists; you are your own faith’s worst enemy. Every time you play the tradition card, your religion becomes less and less relevant. Female bishops, gay marriages, practising gay priests, Easter-free Easter eggs: get over them—it’s the 21st Century! In a couple of years, everyone will wonder what the hell all the fuss was about. Most of us already do.

And as for all you more modern, forward-thinking, right-on, non-traditionalist people of a religious persuasion, if you think your faith should still be officially defended by the monarch, that it should still receive preferential treatment from the state, and that kids should still be indoctrinated in it at school rather than in a place of worship, you are also part of the problem. Shouldn’t your religion be strong enough to stand on its own two feet, without fear or favouritism?

Or don’t you think it is?

The Welsh side

In all my years visiting the Dee Marshes, I had never looked across them from the Welsh side.

I’ve been visiting the English side of the Dee Marshes for longer than I can remember. It’s what you do when you’re brought up on the Wirral Peninsula. Ice creams at Parkgate, gazing across the no-longer-there river towards Wales. A pint at the Harp in Neston, taking in the same view. Bird-spotting strolls along the edge of the marshes at Burton.

Even though I no longer live on the Wirral, I return there most weeks to visit my dad. When I do, I usually make time for a visit to the marshes: often for a stroll; sometimes simply to sit in the car and admire the view; occasionally (like I’m doing right now) to write.

Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. After so many years, the view across the Dee Marshes has become very dear to me: the backdrop of the Clwydian Hills, dominated by Moel Famau, the hill I’ve climbed every Christmas Eve for the last 29 years; Flint Castle, squatting low on the edge of the marshes beneath ugly blocks of flats; the retired British Rail ferry near Mostyn, which lived an unsuccessful second life as a ‘Fun Ship’; the distant vertical smudge of the lighthouse at Talacre near Point of Ayr way over to the far right.

Only recently did it occur to me that, in all my years visiting the Dee Marshes, I had never looked across them from the Welsh side, back towards my native Wirral. So, a couple of weeks ago, I made a detour over there to take some photographs:

Flint Castle

Although the approach by car was most inauspicious, Flint Castle turned out to be rather wonderful. Situated right on the edge of the marshes, the castle once used the River Dee as a moat. The oldest of Wales’s medieval castles, protecting a former causeway over the Dee, it was here in 1399 that Richard II was captured by Henry Bolingbroke. Henry subsequently deposed Richard to become Henry IV.

I couldn’t believe my luck to have the castle all to myself. The views across the marshes were misty and atmospheric. I could only just make out the Wirral on the far side.

Talacre Beach and Lighthouse

I came in search of the lighthouse, but was surprised to find a wonderful beach backed by extensive sand-dunes. How could I have lived so close, for so many years, without even knowing it was there?

The Fun Ship

The former Fun Ship (née Duke of Lancaster) has clearly seen better days, but makes quite an impression up close. It would be nice to see her put to some good use—assuming it’s appropriate to refer to a duke as ‘her’.

I very much enjoyed my brief excursion to the Welsh side of my beloved Dee Marshes. The weather wasn’t exactly fantastic, but what did I expect in the middle of February? That said, the overcast, misty views across the marshes from Flint Castle lent a satisfyingly desolate air.

I hope to return to the Welsh side later in the year, when the views are clearer, and when I might actually be able to see the Wirral.

2016: a year in photos

My sixth annual video slideshow review of the year.

For the last few years, at this time of year, I've produced a video slideshow of photos to sum up my year just gone. Here's the 2016 video:

Consistent beyond reproach, as in previous years, this year's slideshow contains 97 photographs.

The background music, Techno Prisoners, is also by Yours Truly. I don't have an ounce of musical ability. Thank goodness for Garageband!

See also: Previous years' video slideshows

The joy of the familiar—and the unfamiliar—on a local patch

Getting to know a place well means knowing what to look forward to, and appreciating when something unusual happens.

One of the joys of having a local patch is its ever-growing familiarity. As you get to know and love a place, you get to know what to expect—or at least what to look out for. There’s great comfort to be found in the familiar: the world can’t have gone entirely to pot if swallows are still hunting for insects in the lea of the woods on the top road; or that small clump of harebells has come into bloom again at the end of the lane.

Although I’d never try to pass myself off as even a half-competent naturalist, in the quarter-century I’ve been taking walks on the local moor, I like to think I’ve got to know the place pretty well. I know when to start anticipating the first lapwings of the year, and the best places to look for their tumbling courtship displays. I know when the wheatears are due to return, and which section of wall they’re most likely to visit to flirt with me. And there’s always that brief period to look forward to in August, when the heather is at peak purple, and you could swear you smell honey in the air.

As you become more familiar with your local patch, you begin to notice—or possibly imagine—the little things: how rust-red moor-grass is a reliable indicator of a bog up ahead; how the grouse seem to take flight less readily in the colder months, and far more readily as the Glorious Twelfth approaches; how, in autumn or winter, a kestrel can often be seen hovering in the updraught of the edge as sunset approaches. Noticing such things for yourself makes your relationship with your local patch more intimate: the relationship becomes part of your identity.

Once you get to know your local patch, you also become more attuned to the unfamiliar or the out-of-place: grouse perching on fence-posts when snow is on the ground; the mysterious wheezing call that turns out to be your first golden plover; the unearthly, what-the-hell-is-that bleating of a snipe’s drumming courtship display.

I enjoyed just such a novel experience a couple of weeks ago. It was an inauspicious, cold mid-afternoon. The sun had disappeared behind thick clouds. My legs were more weary than usual after a scramble through one of the quarries in a vain attempt to photograph a grouse I’d seen sneaking up there. But then things improved: I flushed a snipe—a relatively rare sighting—then spent a few minutes admiring a kestrel hunting below the edge. As I climbed towards the top of the edge, a small flock of birds shot past. Little brown jobs: meadow pipits, most likely. When you see small birds flying like that, you should look to see if they’re fleeing from something. Which I instinctively did. And there it was again, the kestrel I’d seen a few minutes earlier, flying along the skyline.

But no, something was different. The kestrel was flying wrong, quartering back and forth above the heather. And it was too big. It looked almost like a… HOLY CRAP! A flash of white rump! A female hen harrier: my first in 24 years’ walking on the Moor!

Hen harrier

I’ve seen one or two hen harriers before, in winter, hunting above the Dee Marshes on the edge of my native Wirral peninsular. But finally getting to see one hunting on my local patch—on my beloved Moor—made the experience intensely personal: something I’d long hoped for, but feared I might never see.

The encounter lasted all of ten seconds before the harrier disappeared over the camber of the hill. But I saw one. After all these years, I finally got to see one: a hen harrier—on my own local patch.

How special is that?