Richard Carter's meta feed A merged feed of Articles, Sidelines, Reviews and Newsletters from en-gb Richard Carter 11 September 2019 Wed, 11 Sep 2019 21:00:44 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A spin out to Salts Mill. A spin out to Salts Mill for a surprisingly good pizza, some art, and a spot of retail therapy. Jen came away with a cookery book, and I bought a biography of Oswald of Northumbria, from the time the killjoys insist we should no longer refer to as the Dark Ages.

The main road over the Moor was shut, so we had to take a convoluted route there and back. As we reached the top of my favourite new long-cut at Wainstalls, a lone swallow flopped over a wall heading south. It was the first swallow I’d seen since we got back from Anglesey. I wonder if it will be the last of the summer.

10 September 2019 Tue, 10 Sep 2019 21:00:32 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) An autumnal walk and a wintry book. A walk with Jen along the lane to Old Town, then down past the mill, through Nutclough Wood, to Hebden Bridge for a lunch and a crossword at The Stubbing Wharf. The word ‘grenadier’ turns out to be an anagram of ‘re-reading’: who’d have thought it?

Rochdale Canal, Stubbing Wharf

A few autumn-tinted leaves drifted slowly down the canal. I love autumn, but I don’t particularly like where it ends up. I’m currently reading a review copy of Horatio Clare’s The Light in the Dark: a winter journal, in which he tries to be more positive about our most difficult season. Clare lives in Hebden Bridge, so I recognise the landscape and weather he describes so beautifully. Our paths have yet to cross—although we did somehow become ‘friends’ on Facebook. The book documents the winter of 2017–2018. I was amused to see Clare’s journal begins on 16 October 2017: a year to the day before I began writing these Sidelines, which I suppose have turned into a journal of sorts.

Is it really getting on for a year?

6 September 2019 Fri, 06 Sep 2019 21:00:31 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Seabird feeding frenzy! · Anglesey ·

Our last full day in Anglesey. It was chilly on the rocks first thing, but very peaceful. A razorbill and a cormorant fished quietly in the bay. House martins buzzed about the low clifftop, occasionally converging for mid-air confabs. They’ll be off soon. I guess many of them have already set off: there have been noticeably fewer swallows and martins this week.

A quick trip to Beaumaris for chips on the pier. As usual, the gulls made a nuisance of themselves, so we had to hide in one of the rain-shelters.

Back to the rocks one final time in the afternoon. I sat on my favourite rock and gazed out to sea for an hour, until I was disturbed by gulls squabbling below. I tried to ignore them, but the squabbling grew louder. I stood to investigate, and realised the whitebait were in: the gulls hovered en masse above the waves, dropping down occasionally into the water to feed. Some whitebait had been thrown up on to the seaweed-covered rocks directly below me, provoking angry confrontations between greedy gulls. Alerted by the commotion, more gulls flew in, accompanied by a couple of cormorants. Then, suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, razorbills began to appear. I counted twenty, and a couple of guillemots for good measure. A little egret even put in a show—my first at the rocks. It flapped above a floating gull melee, its long legs dangling low, clearly tempted, but decided it was out of its depth and flew off to the far side of the bay.

The feeding frenzy lasted the best part of an hour. I stood on the low cliff, looking directly down on the action, taking photo after photo. I was particularly pleased to observe razorbills up close. Most of them seemed to be juveniles, with only a hint of their future, eponymous, cut-throat-razor-shaped bills. Despite the choppy waves, I could sometimes see the razorbills shooting back and forth beneath the water, using their wings for propulsion. Their similarity to penguins seemed uncanny, although perhaps it shouldn’t: the name penguin was first applied to the razorbill’s nearest relative, the flightless, now sadly extinct, great auk.


Once the frenzy subsided, I toyed briefly with the idea of returning to my favourite rock, but this birds-eye view of seabird action seemed an appropriate point at which to take my leave of the rocks and return to the caravan, after which, tomorrow, it’s back to Yorkshire.

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5 September 2019 Thu, 05 Sep 2019 21:00:21 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A yoga-ist, terns, a favourite walk, a seal, and a crab: it’s non-stop action in Anglesey! · Anglesey ·

I was astonished to see a young woman performing yoga down on the rocks first thing. Fortunately, she’d had the common decency to set her mat down well off to one side, so it was easy for me to pretend she wasn’t there.

There was a more autumnal feel in the air, with the sunlight twinkling off the water a bit cooler than on previous days. Over the next hour or so, about a hundred Sandwich terns passed by, all heading in the same direction, into the wind. They’ll be heading south soon.

Hell's Mouth

After breakfast, we took one of our favourite walks along the clifftop from Porth Wen to Porth Llanlleiana. It was perfect walking weather: bright and breezy and not too hot. As always, we puffed our way up the steep climb from Hell’s Mouth to take in the view from the old lookout post, over towards Middle Mouse, the island known in Welsh as Ynys Badrig, on account of the British-born Saint Patrick supposedly having been shipwrecked there. The island is the northernmost point in Wales.

Autumn fruits were out in abundance as we walked back along the lane. I always count eating my first blackberry of the year as the official start of autumn, which means autumn nearly always begins, as it did this year, during the walk back from Porth Llanlleiana to Porth Wen.

Back at the caravan, I headed down to the rocks, where I found a seal bobbing in the bay. This particular ‘grey’ seal was a mottled brown colour. Go figure. It craned its surprisingly long neck above the waves to take a good look round. A longish, flexible neck will make catching fish easier: think cormorants, sealions, guillemots, grebes, and ichthyosaurs. I could see the seal’s ear, higher than you might expect on its head, level with its eye. I suppose this will make listening for stuff above water easier. No drag-inducing external ear, obviously, just a hole. Its nostrils flared, then snapped shut, like a pair of vertical mouths. I managed to take a few nice photos before it turned and spotted me, immediately crash-diving, never to return.

Grey seal

I pottered around on the rocks for an hour or so until Jen joined me, whereupon I announced my intention to teach her how to catch a crab. Having never been crabbing before, Jen was extremely sceptical we would catch anything with simply a weighted string and a smashed-up limpet on a hook. It might have been forty years since I last went crabbing, but I was confident we’d catch one in under five minutes—because crabs really are that stupid. Just this once, I was right and Jen was wrong.

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4 September 2019 Wed, 04 Sep 2019 21:00:15 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) More birds down on the rocks, and a trip to South Stack. · Anglesey ·

Down to the rocks again first thing. A heron flew out from the bay, low across a calm sea. I’m always surprised to see herons at the coast, but, then again, why not? Trying out unconventional niches sometimes pays off. When it does, longer term, evolution might kick in. Who knows, today’s opportunist herons might one day lead to new species of heron better adapted to littoral lifestyles.

A trip out to South Stack after breakfast. We took a battering from the wind as we made our way along the high clifftop, light patches and cloud-shadows patterning the sea. I shouted to Jen it was a good job the wind was coming in from the sea, as I wouldn’t feel at all safe walking so close to the edge were it blowing the other way. Jen turned and shouted, “Did you just say something?”

It was too windy for birds, although I did see a lone chough skimming off low across the heather, seeking shelter behind a rocky outcrop.

South Stack Lighthouse

We headed back to the caravan after lunch at the White Eagle hotel. For some reason, the car’s sat-nav decided to take us a more direct route on the way back, through winding country lanes. Before we knew it, we were heading down a single-track lane that gradually grew narrower and narrower. The road surface became rougher and rougher, then deeply rutted. Roadside brambles and branches were scraping against either side of the car, as well as the roof. It was all very Indiana Jones. I was relieved to have four-wheel drive with high clearance, as none of my previous cars could have made it through. I certainly wouldn’t have relished having to reverse a couple of miles down such an unsuitable road.

Down on the rocks in the afternoon, I saw the local inshore lifeboat heading off towards Red Wharf Bay. It returned a short while later.

Moelfre inshore lifeboat

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3 September 2019 Tue, 03 Sep 2019 21:00:56 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Guillemots and gulls in action, and my favourite Anglesey walk. · Anglesey ·

It was pissing down when I got up. Not heavy rain, but the driving drizzle I’ll forever associate with Anglesey. Anglesey rain, Mum used to call it. With the exception of the tropical rainstorm I once experienced in Hong Kong, it’s the wettest rain I know. This morning, it drove across the caravan field in sheets. Discretion being the better part of valour, I decided to give the rocks a miss until after breakfast.

There was nothing much happening when I finally got to the rocks. I watched a herring gull rootling around on a seaweed-covered boulder just out to sea. It eventually hit the jackpot in the form of a crab. I watched for ten minutes as it shook the poor creature, then banged it against a rock, until all its legs had come off—but not the pincers. The gull then repeatedly stabbed at the underside of the crab’s carapace until it had worked its way in, then began to feed hungrily. It was only a medium-sized crab, but I’m guessing at close to the limit for a herring gull.

Far out to sea, a pair of gannets gleamed on straight, black-tipped wings. You can always tell an adult gannet by its sheer whiteness—as well as by its size.

My gannet-gazing was interrupted by two deep, cough-like barks. Definitely not a seal. Almost certainly a bird. But not a call I recognised. There it was again, this time followed by a pair of much higher-pitched barks in reply. I scoured the nearby sea, and eventually spotted a pair of guillemots: parent and child. The parent was already sporting its winter plumage. I watched them fishing together for the next quarter of an hour. Every time either of them surfaced, it emitted a pair of barks, as if to say I’m here! At times, when they became separated by a hundred metres or so, the young bird’s barks began to sound more frantic, whereupon the adult would rejoin its offspring before continuing to fish. I dare say the young bird will be fending for itself in a few days. Good luck, little bird, little William, petit Guillaume, little guillemot!


In the afternoon, we took a walk along the headland at Bull Bay: my favourite Anglesey walk—and quite possibly my favourite walk full-stop. The weather was still overcast, but that was good enough for me, even though it meant there was no chance of our spotting the mountains of the Isle of Man today, as we did, to our great surprise, a few years back. The sea north of this headland was the first place I ever saw dolphins—and gannets. The headland itself is a popular haunt for ravens and choughs. No dolphins or choughs today, but there were plenty of gannets far out to sea, and I heard but didn’t see a raven cronking from a gorse-covered hilltop. There were also linnets aplenty, and a couple of wheatears. And there was gorse and tormentil, ling and bell heather, sheep’s bit and the copper-tinted sea: yellow, purple, and blue; the colours I shall forever associate with Bull Bay headland. It is a very special place.

Bull Bay headland

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2 September 2019 Mon, 02 Sep 2019 21:00:14 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Chilling out, until a peregrine kicks up a commotion. · Anglesey ·

Down to the rocks with the obligatory brew first thing. The sea was sparkling once again. I sat on my favourite rock, closed my eyes, and faced towards the sun. Pay attention, I thought. Remember this. The warmth on your face. The breeze in your hair. The red glow through your closed eyelids. The sound of the sea lapping gently against the rocks. The herring gulls crying far off to the left in the bay. Take all this in. Absorb it. Next time you’re feeling down, or a bit stressed out, or pissed off, close your eyes and remember being right here, right now.

Early morning down at the rocks

Floaters shot back and forth across the sky when I eventually returned to the visual world. I blinked them away, then took in the view. The tide was out, meaning there was shoreline rather than the usual waves through the gap in the rock-face to my left. Gulls and oystercatchers ambled this way and that on the wet sand. I saw one oystercatcher catch and devour a small fish in the shallows. I had no idea they did that. One enterprising young herring gull singled out a dibbing oystercatcher and tailed it. When the oystercatcher finally managed to tug an enormous lugworm out of the sand, the gull pounced. The oystercatcher, familiar with such tactics, immediately flew off with the lugworm still dangling from its orange beak. But the gull was not so easily evaded: it took off after the oystercatcher, harrying the poor creature until it dropped the lugworm on to the sand. A nanosecond later, the worm was wending its way down the thieving gull’s gullet.

I scanned the sea for a while through my binoculars, on the lookout for gannets and dolphins. None this morning. But that’s one of the joys of nature waiting: never knowing for sure what you’re going to see.

Suddenly a commotion. The gulls on the beach cried in frantic unison and flew low across the breaking waves, landing in the sea. They looked anxiously back at the shore, on high alert. Meanwhile, the oystercatchers had scuttled and flapped across the sand to take refuge in the seaweed-covered rocks at the edge of the beach. Through the gap in the rock-face, I couldn’t see what had spooked them—a dog-walker, I guessed. As I stood to take a better look, a female peregrine soared up into view, flying directly towards me, then disappeared somewhere beneath the rock-face at my feet. Look as I might (and, believe me, I looked), I couldn’t locate where she had landed—if, indeed, she had landed, rather than skirting the rock-face and heading off low, out of view.

It occurred to me afterwards that taking to the sea is likely to be a gull’s best tactic when under attack by a peregrine. It’s certainly far safer than being in the air, or on the beach. A dunking in the sea is likely to prove fatal to a peregrine. I wonder if taking to the sea when peregrines approach is a tactic young gulls learn from more experienced gulls, or if it’s something hard-wired into their genes. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Down at the rocks late afternoon, I fell arse-over-tit while examining a rock pool. I very nearly ended up in the damn thing, expensive camera and all. Inquisitiveness can be a hazardous trait.

Sandwich terns were fishing in the calm water just off the rocks. I was able to get closer than usual, and captured a couple of nice photos.

Sandwich tern

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1 September 2019 Sun, 01 Sep 2019 21:00:07 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Watching terns, and a walk along the Anglesey coast. · Anglesey ·

Down to the rocks with a brew in my battered Dewar flask first thing. Sunlight sparkled on the sea over towards Puffin Island, silhouetting a small boat whose occupant was checking his crab and lobster creels. A couple of hundred metres away, Sandwich terns fished in the bay, the distant sound of their soft plashes lagging a split-second behind the visible splash.

Sandwich tern

After breakfast, we took a walk along the coast, past the lifeboat station and the anglers on the point, to the windswept northerly headland, with its familiar view across the bay to Lligwy and Dulas. Turnstones turned stones on the beach. My first wheatear of the year landed on a nearby rock and obliged me with a photo-op. Stiff-winged fulmars soared effortlessly in the updraughts of the low, limestone cliffs. When we reached the pebble beach where Mum found glow-worms as a child, a grey seal popped its head out the water and observed us quizzically before retiring to a safer distance. We walked on to the site of the Royal Charter wreck before turning back. Another wheatear, three whitethroats (lesser whitethroats, I think), a lots of late-season butterflies.

After lunch of home-pressed beef and home-made pickled onions back at the caravan, I headed back down to the rocks. A lone ringed plover hunched on a rock near the rocky beach. It’s been several years since I saw one. There were plenty of cormorants, as usual, and quite a few Sandwich terns making their way, along the coast, into the wind, fishing as they went, their young crying plaintively to be fed. I took many, many photos, one or two of which might turn out to be in focus.

A posh meal at the Marram Grass restaurant in the evening, then back to the caravan. On Facebook, my friend Karen in Maine had mentioned the aurora borealis forecast was looking hopeful. I’ve never seen the Northern Lights, so I looked out for them shortly before bed. No joy, but the Anglesey stars were doing their astonishing, dark-skies magic. Once again, I experienced a sense of invertigo as I gazed in slack-jawed awe up into the Milky Way, with its myriad stars. How can it be we’ve come to accept the paltry number of stars we usually see in the night sky as normal? When I am emperor, light pollution will be a thing of the past.

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31 August 2019 Sat, 31 Aug 2019 21:00:13 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Back to Anglesey! · Anglesey ·

While everyone else in the northern hemisphere seems to be banging on about autumn, we have arrived in my beloved Anglesey for our annual late-summer holiday.

We got here about 4pm. After we’d unloaded our stuff into the static caravan, I immediately hurried down the field and on to the rocks to check everything was still as it ought to be. Sure enough, the sea was still lapping against the rocks; the island off the point was still coated in gulls; Snowdonia, Puffin Island, and the Great Orme still crenellated the eastern horizon; a lone razorbill and three cormorants fished near the shore; and a couple of Sandwich terns were teaching this year’s offspring how to dive into the water from on high to catch fish.

Everything was indeed as it ought to be. So I sat on my favourite rock for an hour, gazing out to sea, with nothing entering my thoughts but happy memories.

Waiting for the tide
29 August 2019 Thu, 29 Aug 2019 21:00:26 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Felling a leylandii. The tree-feller finally came round to take down our huge leylandii today. We’ve never liked it. It cast a long shadow over our back lawn and, more importantly, our washing line. It was down in a couple of hours, but its disposal took far longer. While the tree-feller chainsawed the trunks and larger branches into hearth-length pieces, I wheelbarrowed them into a corner of the garage to season. It was hard work. I confidently predict my right elbow will ache for several days. Still, we now have plenty of firewood for the coming winter.

Book review: ‘Sea Room’ by Adam Nicolson Tue, 27 Aug 2019 15:53:53 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The story of one man, three islands and half a million puffins.
The story of one man, three islands and half a million puffins.

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‘Sea Room’ by Adam Nicolson

‘Have you ever wondered what it would be like to own your own islands?’ asks the blurb on the back of Sea Room: an island life. Well, no, not in the plural. But, as a kid, I fantasised about having my very own island. I knew exactly what it would be like (a cross between Arthur Ransome’s Wild Cat Island with its secret harbour, and the Famous Five’s Kirrin Island with its secret tunnel to the mainland). I drew countless maps of my fantasy island. I even knew where it would be situated: about half a mile off the coast of my beloved Anglesey. It also had a house and a lighthouse, and lots of cliffs inhabited by lots and lots of seabirds.

Sadly, my fantasy island doesn’t exist.

Adam Nicolson had no need of a fantasy island, as he inherited three very real islands from his father: the Shiant Islands (pronounced Shant) off the east coast of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides (another fantasy island from my childhood, for no other reason than my middle name is Lewis). Nicolson has now handed the Shiant Islands on to his own son. Before finally doing so, however, he wrote this very enjoyable book.

Sea Room is an entertaining blend of memoir, opinion, nature writing, and history. In places, the history of these remote islands is unsurprisingly sketchy, but the ‘romantic landowner’ does his best to fill in the gaps with reasonable conjecture.

The Shiants might not have a secret tunnel to the mainland, or a lighthouse, and their harbours come across as barely accessible rather than secret, but there is a house (of sorts), and there are plenty of very high cliffs with lots and lots of seabirds, especially puffins. They sound like a lovely place to spend a few weeks.

Book review: ‘River’ by Esther Kinsky Tue, 27 Aug 2019 15:52:18 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) File under Sebaldian.
File under Sebaldian.

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‘River’ by Esther Kinsky

I read this novel after reading a review of it on a W.G. Sebald-themed blog. The parallels with Sebald’s work, which I admire very much, seemed clear bordering on blatant. So I thought I’d give it a go.

Having now read River, I can confirm the Sebaldian similarities are glaring: an unnamed, German narrator living in the UK, but travelling to other parts of the world; a confusingly disjointed timeline; empty, melancholic landscapes; wonderfully precise prose; indistinct black and white photographs; text translated from the German by Iain Galbraith (who previously translated Sebald).

I enjoyed River very much indeed, even though (or perhaps especially because), like reading Sebald, the experience is very difficult to describe. It’s a strange, haunting form of writing, and it works for me.

Although the novel is titled in the singular, it features many different rivers from a number of countries, from India to Canada. But most of the action (such as it is) takes place around the River Lea in London. Kinsky’s long, detailed descriptions of the east London edgelands are wonderfully precise, contrasting with the remarkably little we learn about her narrator. During the section set in Canada, for example, we hear of her young child. But the child is never mentioned again.

As with Sebald, photography features prominently in this novel. Indeed, while there are fewer images than with Sebald, the photography is more to the forefront. Whereas Sebald simply illustrates his prose with photographs, Kinsky’s character describes how she obtained her camera, and how she goes about taking and collecting photographs.

An enjoyable, perplexing, Sebaldian read.

24 August 2019 Sat, 24 Aug 2019 21:00:18 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Under invasion! An oppressively hot day. Jen visited her mum in the afternoon, so I took Rosie the cocker spaniel for a walk in Crow Nest Wood. It was surprisingly dark under the dense beech foliage, and my eyes struggled to adjust between shade and bright sunlit patches.

Invasive Himalayan balsam had taken over the abandoned quarry. It was taller than me in some places. A pretty but troublesome plant. It grows so densely, nothing else stands much of a chance. To add insult to injury, the balsam also out-competes many of the local flora for pollinators.

Introduced to Britain from the eponymous Himalaya by Victorian plant hunters, the ornamental plant soon escaped our gardens and began to take over. Far from its natural enemies, it has thrived, although a pathogenic fungus that is believed only to attack the balsam has been released at a number of sites over recent years to study its effectiveness as a biological control.

What’s the worst that could happen?

23 August 2019 Fri, 23 Aug 2019 21:00:03 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A sad anniversary. The anniversary of Mum dying. I can’t believe it’s been ten years already. The best mum ever.

22 August 2019 Thu, 22 Aug 2019 21:00:50 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Our wood-sorrel seems to have survived its latest haircut. The wood-sorrel in the old brass jam-pan in our downstairs loo seems to have survived its latest haircut. Two or three times a year, it becomes so unruly, Jen has to hack it back to soil-level with the kitchen scissors. Other than that, and being watered once a week, it requires no care or maintenance. Definitely our kind of plant!

Jen brought the wood-sorrel from her old place, so it must be at least 25 years old by now. It doesn’t flower for as long as it used to, but we enjoy it as much for the shamrock-like leaves as the flowers.

18 August 2019 Sun, 18 Aug 2019 21:00:44 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Birds flying into windows. Several thuds as assorted birds flew into assorted windows around the house during the morning. None of them were fatal. They’re the same windows, unwashed in over a year, as were on the house yesterday, so I’ve no idea why flying into them should suddenly become so trendy today. From the shapes of the ghostly dust-patterns left on the kitchen window, I’m guessing two collared doves flew into it simultaneously. Either that, or one particularly stupid bird went back for seconds.

This afternoon, as Jen and I were reading in the living room, a wood pigeon crashed headlong into the window by the TV. The pigeon flew off totally unscathed, but we might need to get our sofa professionally cleaned.

13 August 2019 Tue, 13 Aug 2019 21:00:52 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A walk along the edge of the Dee Marshes. · Wirral ·

A walk along the edge of the Dee Marshes to Burton Point. The farmers were bringing the sheep in from the marsh for dipping. It was lovely to see sheepdogs in action, doing there thing. My farmer friend says there have to be an awful lot of sheep in a field for there to look like a lot. There certainly looked to be an awful lot in the post-dip field—two or three hundred, I estimated—with far more still in the dipping pens and out on the marsh. The marshes are owned by the RSPB. Having sheep graze the marsh apparently keeps the grass in better shape for the birds. The sheepdogs set to flight 30 or so pink-footed geese. There were a few little egrets flapping about too, but little else.

Moel Famau from Burton Marshes

After my walk, I relocated to Gayton Marshes to do some work in the car. Two teenage girls dragged their dogs down the cobbled ramp towards the marsh, but came running back moments later, clearly worried, shouting to their mum that they’d heard grass-snakes. It took me a few minutes to realise they’d almost certainly only heard grasshoppers, by which time they had disappeared to safer territory.

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Book review: ‘The Seafarers’ by Stephen Rutt Mon, 15 Jul 2019 19:45:21 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A journey among birds.
A journey among birds.

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‘The Seafarers’ by Stephen Rutt

Seabirds seem to be a popular subject for new books at the moment. We’ve had Adam Nicholson’s The Seabird’s Cry and Tim Dee’s Landfill (both excellent), and now we have Stephen Rutt’s equally enjoyable The Seafarers.

I very much appreciated the unpretentious nature of this book. Rutt travels around different parts of the UK studying seabirds. In the process, we learn a bit about what makes him tick, and quite a lot about seabirds.

The writing is how I prefer it: clear and uncomplicated, mixing memoir, opinion, nature writing, history, and science. The occasional textual flourishes never seem out of place. Here, for example, is Rutt describing the extended Northern Isles midsummer dusk:

The northwards tilt of the earth is sufficient for the perpetual Arctic summer to bleed south and colour the northern horizon at night with a lingering sunset.

I wish more people would write sentences like that, slipping a little science into their descriptions.

As to the birds, it was refreshing to read a nature writer admit he isn’t really into gulls, and finding the popularity of puffins a little irritating. Rutt also made me feel less of an idiot for struggling to distinguish between common and Arctic terns.

Reading this book made me look forward even more to my annual late-summer holiday on the Anglesey coast. It also made me realise (yet again) that, after a gap of over thirty years, I really should try to get back to Shetland some time.

Highly recommended.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

Book review: ‘Irreplaceable’ by Julian Hoffman Mon, 15 Jul 2019 19:43:28 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The fight to save our wild places.
The fight to save our wild places.

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Julian Hoffman is a personal friend, whose progress writing Irreplaceable I have followed from afar with interest. Even though I knew a little about its content, I have to say I was taken aback by just how uplifting and positive the finished book turned out to be. I had anticipated something far more gloomy.

Irreplaceable is a wonderful blend of nature writing and journalism, exploring individual battles to save local wild places.

Grand themes are often best illustrated by small, specific examples. There is an undeclared, faceless, global war being waged against the natural world. But, in this beautifully written book, Hoffman keeps things local and personal, describing how apparently powerless individuals are trying to protect their beloved local patches. The loss of a wood, allotment, or small population of lynxes might seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but they can be utter tragedies viewed at a local level.

Why did I find this book so uplifting? It wasn’t simply because, in some of Hoffman’s examples, the little guys win their particular skirmish (for the time being, at least). Far more heartening, however, were the many examples of people who care passionately about their local patches, and who are prepared to stand their ground in the face of apparently insurmountable odds. If local patches are worth anything, they ought to be worth fighting for. This book shows many people think they are.

Inspirational, and highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Underland’ by Robert Macfarlane Mon, 15 Jul 2019 19:41:18 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A deep time journey.
A deep time journey.

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People who venture underground are an odd bunch. I well remember the visiting cavers’ drunken antics at The Old Hill Inn near Ingleton, back in the day. I’ve visited a few show-caves and -mines over the years, but it takes a special form of insanity to enjoy crawling through cramped, wet passageways in the pitch dark. As far as I’m concerned, it’s bad enough going down our cellar for some firewood.

Reading Underland, Robert Macfarlane’s book celebrating subterranean adventurers, brought back two suppressed claustrophobic memories. The first was of the time in Shetland in 1985, when I foolishly decided to crawl through a low, narrow passageway between the twin walls of a prehistoric circular stone tower, known as a broch. I became trapped for a couple of minutes, and had visions of rescuers having to dismantle a protected ancient monument to retrieve a stout archaeology student who really should have known better. The second was of the time I was given a tour of a nuclear-powered submarine berthed at the Liverpool docks. I was shown the small cabin in which, in the event of an emergency, the entire crew was supposed to gather and await rescue through a single escape hatch. It felt pretty cramped with just a handful of us in there. The idea of cramming in the entire ship’s complement seemed preposterous in the extreme. I got the distinct impression the officer showing us around thought so too.

As you might have gathered, my general plan is to remain safely above ground until I no longer have any say in the matter. Which made my enjoyment of Macfarlane’s book such a surprise. I very much admired his previous books, but, due to the subterranean subject-matter, was concerned I might not get much out of this one. My reservations turned out to be groundless.

This is a thoroughly entertaining book. Not least because it isn’t all about squeezing into ridiculously cramped spaces. Macfarlane’s concept of what comprises ‘underland’ is admirably wide. My escapades in the Shetland broch and nuclear-powered submarine might well have counted. In this book he explores all manner of underland, from Greenland glacier-caves to prehistoric burial chambers, from underground rivers to the Paris catacombs, from Norwegian cave-art to subterranean nuclear waste facilities, from tree roots to the search for ‘dark matter’ in a mine beneath the North Sea. It’s all delightfully entertaining and, of course, beautifully written.

More, please.

Book review: ‘Selected Poems’ by Kathleen Jamie Mon, 15 Jul 2019 19:38:49 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A highly enjoyable poetry collection.
A highly enjoyable poetry collection.

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Selected Poems

Kathleen Jamie is one of my favourite writers. I make a point of re-reading her ‘nature writing’ collections every year during my annual holiday in Anglesey. Favourite books for favourite places.

I have a pet theory that poets make excellent prose writers. Not (god forbid!) because they write poetically, but because they are accustomed to writing with precision. Jamie is a prime example. But, it turns out, poets are also pretty good at writing poetry.

This is a most enjoyable selection of Jamie’s poems. I can’t claim to have understood or appreciated all of them, but those that I did I enjoyed very much indeed. So much so that I have even earmarked one of them for possible inclusion at my funeral. (Not that I hope it will ever need to be used, you understand.)

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ by Charles Darwin Thu, 20 Jun 2019 13:34:16 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ by Charles Darwin
‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ by Charles Darwin

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The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

Darwin’s book on emotions is an entertaining read. As ever, he makes many perceptive observations, describing how humans and animals express emotions. But he makes no real attempt to draw the two together

While Darwin gives examples of body-language we share with certain domestic animals, such as shaking or perspiring in fear, he wisely steers clear of making comparisons of ‘higher’ emotions. He doesn’t, for example, attempt to show similarities in body-language between affectionate dogs and humans. (Not least, presumably, because humans don’t have tails to wag!)

Darwin does eventually become a bit bolder when comparing the body-language of humans and other primates, describing how certain apes and monkeys ‘laugh’ when pleased, ‘chuckle’ and wrinkle their eyes when tickled, ‘weep’ when grieving, and ’pout’ when sulking. But he never explicitly presses home an argument claiming we and our fellow simians inherited common facial expressions from a common ancestor. His rhetorical technique seems to be to describe the similarities, but to let the reader work out the implications for themself.

Darwin is far stronger arguing for a common set of expressions across all humans. As someone who believed all mankind was descended from common human ancestors, Darwin thought we would most likely share a common set of emotions. This put him at odds with other evolutionary scientists of his day, who argued different races of humans had evolved from different non-human parent stock. Such arguments were used, along with other specious reasoning, to justify the subjugation of other races by what were assumed to be clearly superior white Europeans. As a fervent opponent of slavery (and, let’s face it, as a far better evolutionary scientist), Darwin had no time for such nonsense.

In one way at least The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was a thoroughly groundbreaking book: it was the first scientific book written in English to contain photographs. And some of them are absolute belters.

The version of the book I read contained a useful running commentary by the psychologist Paul Ekman. It turns out much, but not all, of what Darwin said about the expression of emotions is still supported by modern experts in the field.

An embarrassment of Richards Thu, 20 Jun 2019 12:56:07 +0100 Richard Carter ( In which my head appears on a spike (six times). Running a Charles Darwin fansite, I’ve received plenty of very odd emails over the years. But none quite so odd as the recent request from ceramicist Jo Pearl for me to pose for a series of tiny sculptures inspired by Charles Darwin’s book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. How could I possibly say no to that?

Six Selfies
Yours Truly expressing a gamut of emotions from A to B.
‘Emotional Field 2’ by Jo Pearl
Emotional Field 2 by Jo Pearl

The above piece is part of Jo’s installation of ceramic heads, currently on display at her degree show at Central St Martins (University of the Arts, London) until this Sunday (23rd June 2019). Opening hours are 12–8pm (12–6pm on Sunday).

Be there, or wear flares!

Book review: ‘Insectivorous Plants’ by Charles Darwin Fri, 07 Jun 2019 15:07:23 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Darwin at his most Darwinian.
Darwin at his most Darwinian.

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Insectivorous Plants

One of Charles Darwin’s more endearing characteristics was the way in which he could become completely absorbed in some apparently trivial side-project. The opening paragraph of Insectivorous Plants describes the genesis of one such project:

During the summer of 1860, I was surprised by finding how large a number of insects were caught by the leaves of the common sun-dew (Drosera rotundifolia) on a heath in Sussex. I had heard that insects were thus caught, but knew nothing further on the subject. […] Many plants cause the death of insects, for instance the sticky buds of the horse-chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), without thereby receiving, as far as we can perceive, any advantage; but it was soon evident that Drosera was excellently adapted for the special purpose of catching insects, so that the subject seemed well worthy of investigation.

Most of Darwin’s book Insectivorous Plants, published 15 years after this chance encounter on a Sussex heath, is taken up with investigating the common sundew. It’s Darwin at his most Darwinian, packed with detailed observations and ingenious little experiments. He devised all manner of tests to investigate the movement and co-ordination of Drosera’s sticky ‘tentacles’; to establish what triggered them; and to show how the plants digest their captured food. Typical of Darwin, some of his tests seem more than a little bizarre. Feeding fragments of a cat’s ear and a dog’s tooth to the plants were two of my favourite examples. But, as ever, there was logic behind his enthusiastic eccentricity.

Darwin himself realised he might be going a bit over the top with his experiments, describing them as ‘twaddle’ to his best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker. His wife, Emma, even joked to a friend that she supposed he hoped to prove Drosera was actually an animal. She wasn’t too far off the mark: in one or two places, Darwin draws our attention to how similar some of Drosera’s features are to those of animals. For example:

A plant of Drosera, with the edges of its leaves curled inwards, so as to form a temporary stomach, with the glands of the closely inflected tentacles pouring forth their acid secretion, which dissolves animal matter, afterwards to be absorbed, may be said to feed like an animal.

In reality, Darwin seems to have wanted to show how such unusual adaptations (for a plant) function, and how they could have arisen. Darwin was a details man: his wonderful theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection explains the weird, little anomalies, as well as the grand themes.

The later chapters of this book deal with other insectivorous plants such as Venus fly-traps and bladderworts, but Darwin’s beloved Drosera rotundifolia is really the star of the show.

A wonderful read.

Newsletter No. 16: Snippets of nature writing Fri, 07 Jun 2019 13:10:50 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) sidelines · Robert Macfarlane · Julian Hoffman · Amy Liptrot · Little Toller · Sir Thomas Browne · Tim Dee · Adam Nicolson · Julia Blackburn Rich Text

7TH JUNE 2019


I appreciate I promote this as an ‘occasional’ newsletter, but a six-month gap borders on a hiatus.

My planned Darwin book is progressing slowly. Very slowly. But it is progressing, which is the main thing.

In my previous newsletter, I explained I’d been writing regular ‘sideline’ pieces to keep my juices flowing. They’re mostly snippets of nature writing. I finally decided to publish them in a new Sidelines section on my website. Although I swear blind my Sidelines aren’t diary entries, if you’d like to read through them through in chronological order, as if they were diary entries, here are my 2018 Sidelines and 2019 Sidelines.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. My friend Julian Hoffman’s four-part series exploring the history, biodiversity, cultural traditions and associated bird and human migrations of the traditional salt pans of Southern Spain and Morocco: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4.
    Julian’s book Irreplaceable will be published on 27th June. It’s available for pre-order.
  2. (Audio) Landscape painter Norman Ackroyd meets Robert Macfarlane, landscape writer. Two nice chaps talking shop.
  3. Amy Liptrot’s short piece about breastfeeding, Mother Animal. A wonderful example of left-field nature writing.
  4. Pippa Marland of Land Lines’ interview with Jon Woolcott of Little Toller, the marvellous, Dorset-based nature writing publishers.
  5. Katherine Rundell’s fascinating piece on a remarkable creature I’d never heard of, the golden mole.
  6. When I studied physics at university, it was seen as an embarrassment that the kilogram was still defined by something as crude as a 100-year-old lump of metal locked away in a vault in Paris. Finally, at an ‘emotional’ international conference, the kilogram has been redefined.
  7. (Audio) Every so often, BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time seeks listener suggestions for topics to be covered. I invariably suggest Sir Thomas Browne (a name which should be familiar to anyone who’s read my book On the Moor). I was, therefore, delighted to catch their recent programme on Sir Thomas Browne.

Recent Reading

by Tim Dee
A celebration of gulls’ adaptability, and of the urban bird nerds who study them.
The Seabird’s Cry
by Adam Nicolson
An exploration of birds that spent much of their lives at sea, what they get up to, and how we found out.
Time Song
by Julia Blackburn
A personal investigation into Doggerland: the land that once connected Britain to continental Europe, which now lies submerged beneath the North Sea.

More soon

Now I’ve got back into the swing of this newsletter malarkey, expect more (occasional) updates soon.

Book review: ‘The Good Bee’ by Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum Tue, 21 May 2019 11:21:09 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A celebration of bees and how to save them.
A celebration of bees and how to save them.

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The Good Bee

When I was a young boy, my widowed grandmother’s gentleman friend, Uncle Chuckie, kept bees in his spacious garden. When we visited his house, honeybees would occasionally fly into the living room. To my sister’s and my astonishment, Uncle Chuckie would gently grasp an errant bee between thumb and forefinger, inspect it closely, and, before releasing it back into the garden, announce something along the lines of, “Ah, yes! This one’s named Henry!” My sister and I totally believed Uncle Chuckie could identify his bees individually, not even realising the bee in question was far more likely to be a Henrietta than a Henry.

Beekeeping is going through something of a renaissance at the moment. Everyone seems to be at it. Even my lifelong friend Carolyn, who occasionally used to visit Uncle Chuckie with us. People’s rediscovered interest in apiculture isn’t, as far as I can tell, driven by an increased demand for honey or beeswax. It seems to have far more to do with people realising, worldwide, bees are in trouble, and that, for our own good, we should be doing more to help them.

Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum are one of many couples who have been bitten by the beekeeping bug. Their engaging, charmingly illustrated book is packed full of interesting facts about both wild and domesticated bees. To be honest, I had no idea there were so many types of bee. Thousands of species in fact. In addition to the familiar bumblebees and honeybees, there are, among others, stingless bees, cuckoo bees, carpenter bees, mason bees, leafcutter bees, and ivy bees. I vaguely recalled having read somewhere about sweat bees that obtain moisture and minerals from humans’ and other animals’ perspiration, but vulture bees that make a form of honey from carrion were completely new to me. How long before someone incorporates these amazing creatures into a macabre horror story?

As well as exploring the many different types of bees, their produce, and how we put it to use, Benjamin and McCallum describe the crisis bees and other insects are going through. It’s the same, sad old story: habitat destruction, disease, pesticides, and climate change. They also provide some useful advice about how we can do our bit for bees, and encourage them back into our gardens.

An enjoyable and entertaining read.


Postscript: After I’d finished reading this book, I decided to give my review copy to Carolyn as thanks for all the jars of honey she’s presented me with over the years. I also thought I’d take the opportunity to capture some of her bees on video to accompany this review. The exercise didn’t quite go according to plan…

Discosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

Book review: ‘Under the Rock’ by Benjamin Myers Mon, 06 May 2019 09:31:07 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The poetry of a place.
The poetry of a place.

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Under the Rock

Benjamin Myers lives quite literally in the shadow of Scout Rock, Mytholmroyd, in the steep and narrow Upper Calder Valley. I live on the opposite, sunnier side of the valley. I know Ben, and I love the area, so there was never any chance I wouldn’t enjoy this book. Personal biases aside, it’s damn good.

But how to describe it?

Under the Rock is about immersing oneself in a landscape, in a community. It’s about woodland and millstone grit. Trespassing and wild swimming. Dump-scavenging and guerrilla wood-piling. It’s about the winter blues. Poetry and prose. Weather and walking. Floods and landslides. Moss and mud. History and counter-culture. It’s about Northernness. It’s about reservoirs and dams. Native and offcumden species. It’s about asbestosis and mass-murder. It’s about Jimmy Savile. Throbbing Gristle. Heathcliff the dog. Ted and Sylvia. (Hughes and Plath.)

It’s about 360 pages.

It’s about bloody time you read it.

Book review: ‘Round About Town’ by Kevin Boniface Sat, 04 May 2019 12:56:21 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Diary of a postman.
Diary of a postman.

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Round About Town

Round About Town is a hugely entertaining book. It comprises the diary entries of Kevin Boniface, a Huddersfield postman. It’s packed with observations and overheard conversations. I frequently found myself laughing out loud. (I don’t mean that simply as an expression; I actually did laugh out loud many times.)

Boniface’s words are augmented with equally well-observed photographs gracing every double-page spread.

If Alan Bennett were a postman, his diaries might read very much like this. (And they wouldn’t have all that boring stuff in them about the theatre.)


Book review: ‘The Tree’ by John Fowles Sat, 04 May 2019 12:52:29 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Dissing science (and art) for no good reason.
Dissing science (and art) for no good reason.

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The Tree

Despite this being a truly infuriating book, I know it’s one I’ll return to again and again, just so I can continue to distance myself from its central premise.

This extended essay by the late John Fowles attempts to set science at odds with an appreciation of nature. Anyone who’s read the final chapter of my book On the Moor will understand I hold the truth to be the exact opposite. To shamelessly quote myself:

When did appreciating the world for what it really is become unromantic—or, as some would have it, soulless? […] Darwin hadn’t belittled Nature by explaining how life evolves; he had revealed its true grandeur.

At a number of points in his essay, Fowles goes out of his way to explain he’s not condemning science. He then immediately spoils the conciliatory gesture by setting up yet another scientific straw-man to knock down.

In the interests of balance, Fowles also has a go at art. He argues it’s completely impossible (so pointless to attempt) to convey, say, the ineffable otherness of a wood in either pictorial or written format. But isn’t a major aim in art to convey what an experience meant to the artist? I might never be able to comprehend and describe or depict a tree’s utter treeness, but I can certainly attempt to describe or depict what standing in the middle of a copse felt like to me. I mean, why stop at trees? I might never be able to comprehend a pencil’s utter pencilness, but there’s absolutely no harm in me having a go at drawing one.

Pencil doodle
In yer face, Mr Fowles!

An infuriating but compelling read.

Book review: ‘Time Song’ by Julia Blackburn Sat, 04 May 2019 12:43:05 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Searching for Doggerland
Searching for Doggerland

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Time Song

Time Song recounts Julia Blackburn’s personal investigations into Doggerland: the name coined in the 1990s to describe the land that once connected Britain to continental Europe, but which now lies submerged beneath the North Sea. It was a land inhabited by woolly mammoths and rhinoceroses, Neanderthals, and stone-age Homo sapiens. Evidence for these and other former Doggerland inhabitants continues to be dredged from the sea and washed up on the surrounding beaches.

I enjoyed this book very much indeed, not least because it was written by a non-expert. In many ways, it’s more an account of Blackburn finding out about Doggerland than it is about Doggerland itself. It’s the sort of book that encourages you to go and find out stuff for yourself. I’m all for that.

Interspersed between the account of Blackburn’s investigations is a series of poems: the eponymous time songs. Taking their inspiration from various sources, the time songs explore what life in Doggerland might have been like, and summarising the results of recent scientific studies. It’s an unusual approach, but helps to keep the personal narrative flowing without getting sidetracked too far into published research.

An unusual and entertaining book. Recommended.