Reading more eclectically

I read 46 books last year. One of my aims this year is to broaden the scope of my reading. I still intend to stick mainly to factual stuff, but hope to branch out a bit. The more eclectically you read, the better your chances of making unexpected connections between different topics.

That said, I’ll also need to keep reading books and articles for my Darwin book, so very much more of the same in that respect.

Broadening my reading should also give me the occasional excuse to write about new topics, both here and elsewhere. What’s the point of unearthing interesting new stuff if you don’t share it? Or, as Charles Darwin once put it:

There is no pleasure in reading a book if one cannot have a good talk over it.

—Darwin, C.R. to Charles Lyell, 9 August [1838]. Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 424”.

…But there I go, banging on about Darwin as usual!

Storm Arwen

I’m not a fan of this newfangled notion of giving winter storms names. I think of it as hurricane envy. To make matters worse, the convention of resetting to the letter A at the start of each winter, then progressing alphabetically with each new storm, means it’s unlikely we’ll ever get to experience a Storm Richard. I suppose there might one day be a Storm Dick, but I’m not holding my breath. The powers that be at the Met Office will no doubt avoid that one for entirely different reasons.

All of which means they’ve begun to scrape the barrel for early-in-the-alphabet names to assign to the latest seasonable gust. So much so that the first storm of the current season, which hit the UK last week, appears to have been named after the minor elf-maiden character (and Strider-love-interest) Arwen Undomiel from out of The Lord of the Rings. Whatever next? Storm Boromir? Storm Beren? Storm Balin? (I guess the smart money’s on Storm Bilbo.)

Snowy garden
An ent in our garden on Sunday. Can you tell which way the wind had been blowing?

Like hundreds of thousands of other people in the North of England and Scotland, thanks to Storm Arwen, we had no electricity for most of Saturday. Living high in the Pennines, we also had no water as the electric pumps that pump the water up to our place from below also had no power. And our gas-powered central heating was out of commission too, as the boiler also requires electricity. So we spent much of the day huddled in front of a roaring coal fire, in several layers of clothing, reading until the power finally came back on.

There was a second power-cut on Monday, during which we ended up reading by candle-light. It was an experience, and pleasant enough, but give me the wonders of electric light any day.

Being without running water, central heating, electricity, a telephone, and the internet for the best part of a day did make me wonder what it must have been like to live that way all the time. Practically all our ancestors did just that. They had no mod cons. They were permanently off grid. They knew nothing else, yet somehow they got by.

They must have been bored out of their minds.

A trip out

To celebrate Jen’s birthday, a Michelin-starred meal and an overnight stay at the Angel at Hetton. I couldn’t resist making the obligatory pun that the venison was ‘dead dear’. The waiter was kind enough to say he intended to steal my joke. I’m not sure if I believed him.

En route (indirectly) home, we took a spin around the Yorkshire Dales, and paid a visit to our favourite second-hand bookshop in Sedbergh. The weather was utterly glorious. As always, we kept asking ourselves why we don’t visit the Dales more often: they’re practically on our doorstep.

Howgill Fells
Howgill Fells, Cumbria


This wonderful autumn has finally begun to show signs of back-endishness, although there are still plenty of glorious colours to admire.

Hebden Bridge, autumn
Hebden Bridge, autumn, looking towards our house and the Moor from Fairfield.

Jen and I have taken a few more walks around the lanes, and a longer one around Hollingworth Lake, where the geese, ducks and gulls were as plentiful as ever. But there are suddenly more redwings and fieldfares in the local fields and bushes: favourite winter-migrant thrushes on loan from Scandinavia and farther afield.

Winter does hold certain benefits.

Black-headed gulls, Hollingworth Lake
Black-headed gulls, Hollingworth Lake

Autumn strolls

After several days of pretty dreadful weather, Jen and I were finally able to get some decent autumn strolls in over the last week.

Highlights included only our third ever Hebden Bridge red kite, a flock of long-tailed tits breezing through, a small flock of redwings, and three roe deer in the field behind the house (the fawn is now the same size as its parents). But undoubted star of the show were the magnificent autumn colours, which have done us proud this year.

Upper Calder Valley, autumn
Upper Calder Valley, autumn
Hardcastle Crags, autumn
Hardcastle Crags, autumn

No going back

I continue to remain astonished I was ever able to research and write an entire non-fiction book about a wide variety of topics without the aid of the wonderful (and free) Obsidian app.

Don’t get me wrong: other perfectly good ‘Personal Knowledge Management’ apps are available. They’re very much the in thing at the moment. But how was I ever able to organise my thoughts without atomising them—breaking them down into smaller and smaller discrete notes—and then linking them together? How did I ever manage to get my head around complex, interrelated subjects? How did I ever spot interesting unexpected links between apparently unrelated topics? How did I ever see the wood for the trees?

I managed somehow, but this new way is far better.

I can never go back.

Obsidian note and graph
(L) My Obsidian note about the rush to publish Darwin and Wallace’s ‘joint’ 1858 paper on evolution.
(R) The corresponding Obsidian graph, showing how this note links with certain other notes in my research vault.

27 September 2021

Our semi-tame resident pheasant, Philip (whom I suspect is actually Philip III), has been strutting proudly about the garden the last few days with the missus and kids in tow.

One of the youngsters seems to be a chip off the old block.

Anglesey 2021

We recently returned from our annual, early September week in Anglesey. As always, I spent hours sitting on my favourite rock near the caravan, gazing out to sea, waiting for nothing in particular to happen. It’s a wonderful way to chill out.

The view from my favourite rock
The view from my favourite rock.

With the exception of one day, the weather was pretty ideal this year, although there seemed to be more sea-fog around than usual. Wildlife-wise, it was a quiet year: fewer Sandwich terns, waders, razorbills and gannets near the coast; only a single grey seal; and most of the swallows already en route to Africa after a pretty dire August. But there was still plenty to see, and we went on our favourite walks, and ate one or three ice-creams.

Ravens, north coast of Anglesey.

There was also one wonderful starry night. Anglesey skies have very little light pollution, so we gazed up open-mouthed at the Milky Way, and trained my snazzy new binoculars on Jupiter and the Galilean Moons: from left to right, Ganymede, Europa, Io, Jupiter, and Callisto.

We’re already looking forward to next September.

31 August, 2021

Sheep on the Moor

A walk on the Moor with Jen, the purple heather now past its best and fading fast.

A few sheep, a couple of red grouse, a lone wheatear flitting away. A distinctly autumnal feel in the air. Which is always disconcerting for those of us who book their ‘summer’ holidays for September.


· East Yorkshire ·

During a few days’ stay at her sister’s caravan near Filey, Jen and I drove a short distance down the coast to visit the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliff’s: home of the UK’s only mainland gannetry.

The view from the clifftops were spectacular. V-formations of adults and juveniles were heading out to sea. Scores of other birds were circling off the cliffs before breaking away to make ambitious, often aborted landing attempts on narrow ledges. Ledge-space is at a premium, and neighbouring birds jealously guard their bijou real estate, repelling any interlopers that approach too close.

Gannet on landing approach

Jen and I last visited Bempton ten years ago, a couple of months earlier in the breeding season. Those extra weeks represented a considerable change in the life of the colony. Last time we were here, many pairs of adult gannets were still bonding or brooding their solitary eggs on cramped cliff-faces, while a few fluffy, white hatchlings could be seen here and there. This time, there were large, dark, brightly bespeckled young all over the place. These were mostly protected by lone parents, the other parents being away fishing for food. Young gannets are disconcertingly dinosaurian in appearance, and remarkably different in colouration to the brilliant-white adults. It takes several seasons for the full colour transformation to occur.

Adult and fledgling gannet

Up close, adult gannets are far more impressively coloured than the bright-white, black-wing-tipped birds seen from a distance. Their dark legs ad feet bear snazzy turquoise stripes along the ankles and toes. Their pale, sinister eyes are ringed with blue lids. Their sturdy, black-streaked, white dagger-beaks bear a hint of blue, lending them a metallic appearance. And the sides of their heads, their throats, and napes are stained with a hint of tobacco.


Up close, gannets are also rather smelly. I dare say all seabirds are, but when they’re gathered in such huge numbers, the effect borders on that of a good fertilizer—which is, of course, exactly how seabird guano was once used.

I’ve only just learnt that the word gannet comes from the same etymological source as gander—presumably on account of the gannet’s vaguely goose-like appearance. Both words are based on the Old English word ganot, meaning ‘strong’ or ‘masculine’. Which I guess just goes to prove, what’s source for the gannet is source for the gander.

Gannet in flight