Monthly Archives: February 2013

Death and love in York

To say that the Northern English city of York has a rich history and cultural heritage would be an understatement. It was founded on the river Ouse (below) by the Romans almost 2000 years ago, only a single generation after the crucifixion of Christ.

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The city walls are the most extensive in the UK with the majority dating back to Medieval times (as below) but some to when the city was in the hands of the Vikings (such as the brilliantly named, Eric Bloodaxe) or the Romans.

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York castle

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The ruined keep of the castle, Clifford’s Tower (above), is largely all that remains. It stands proud above the city but has a dark past. In 1190, the new king Richard I’s (the brutal crusader romanticised as Coeur de lion) overseas conquests were sparking anti semitism at home. A mob chased at least 150 Jewish people to the castle where they appealed for protection. Locked inside the keep they were besieged for days. As their fate became inevitable, rather than renounce their faith, they killed themselves and then their bodies were set alight to prevent mutilation post mortem. The wooden keep was raised to the ground. Eventually, the current stone edifice was built in its place. Although this building too was to be gutted by fire…

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From the ruined ramparts (above) another, hugely important historical building can be seen…

York Minster

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As the seat of the second most senior priest in the Anglican Church, York Minster is appropriately grand and impressive.

I felt enormously privileged that my fiancée and I were able to attend a wedding, of friends of ours, in the Minster. The architecture, and history of the place is a superbly fitting setting to tie the knot…

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Secret London: Part IX – Eastern marshes

On the very eastern edge of Greater London, just before the Thames flows under the Queen Elizabeth II bridge and over the Dartford Tunnel, the brackish water passes some important wetland: Rainham Marshes.

Thames from Purfleet

To a central Londoner, it feels like you are out in the sticks, but looking back up the Thames, the steel and glass towers of Canary Wharf, the City, and now the Shard, are visible although nearly 15 miles away (I took the shot below at maximum zoom)…

London

History on the marshes

Around 6,100 years ago, as our ancestors transitioned from hunter-gatherers to farmers, Britain became an island. A catastrophic tsunami (created by some huge land movements in Norway) turned marshland into what we now know as the English Channel and turned some low lying forest into marshland. Over time, as silt has shifted or been washed away, remnants of these ancient forests are exposed in the marshes…

6,000 year old tree stump

More recently, the marshes have played an important role in British military history. In the early part of the twentieth century, soldiers came to the rifle ranges and the antique target ranges remain to this day…

Target

Before flood defences were raised, blocking its view down the Thames, this tower (below) would have been used to to spot any U-boats/submarines sneaking up the river. It also used to have a machine gun on its roof to shoot down Zeppelins. Now it sits in tranquil retirement amidst the wildlife…

Tower

The nature reserve

Rainham Marshes has now been reborn as a nature reserve, maintained by the RSPB, and is an important site for wildlife.

The view below is from one of the bird hides…

View from hide

The Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) below are seen in front of some of the vast expanse of reeds the marshes are famous for…

Starlings

In winter, large numbers of ducks, such as these grazing Wigeon (Anas penelope) and sleeping Shovelers (Anas clypeata) flock to the marshes…

Wigeon

… and yesterday I saw huge flocks of Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) twist in the air as they rose time and again up from their feeding grounds (seen here with an oil refinery and other industrial structures in the background)…

Lapwing

Whilst often fiendishly difficult to spot wading, I also spotted quite large flocks of Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) in flight…

Snipe

Thames shoreline

Thames view

On the other side of the flood defences, boats and ships pass up and down…

ship

… and the heavily tidal Thames exposes muddy flats where more ducks and waders congregate such as the wonderfully beaked Curlew (Numenius arquata) that I actually photographed this time last year (I’m cheeky but honest!) beside a Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)…

Curlew

The Thames also washes up a disturbing quantity of rubbish…

Trolley

Rubbish

Plastic can obviously cause significant damage to wildlife and the environment, but animals also get on with their lives around it, such as this Wigeon…

Wigeon and bottle

… and this Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus) – sorry about the grainy photo – picking around seaweed and other, less natural, detritus…

Rock Pipit

Birds, birds, birds

Other than the grainy Rock Pipit, and a couple of the flock-shots I was pleased with (all above), I didn’t actually get to snap anything too out of the ordinary, but here are a few of the photos I did take…

Great Tit (Parus major)

Great Tit

Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) – posing

Blue Tit

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone) – also posing

Carrion Crow

The UK’s smallest bird, and one of my favourites, Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) – most definitely not posing!

Goldcrest

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

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…which should not be confused with the black headed, Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) – taken at Rainham last year, as I only got blurry shots yesterday 😦

Reed Bunting

Talking of blurry shots, here is a distant snap of the worryingly declining Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Skylark

A male Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Chaffinch

… and finally, Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)

Collared Dove

I am sure many London-based wildlife lovers would take issue with me describing Rainham Marshes as ‘secret’ London, but I am sure many more people based in the capital wouldn’t have thought about spending a day in a beautiful place to the very east of our capital.

Seven Wonders of London: Part I – Neasden?!

Neasden in North West London is probably not somewhere on a sightseer’s wish list. Carved up by major roads and train lines, I hope any inhabitants would forgive me for labelling it a rather bleak and grubby suburb of the metropolis…

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Wandering around in the cold and drizzle in Neasden cannot be many people’s idea of a fun Saturday. The sights I came across seemed appropriately drab or even depressing, such as these soot covered wreaths marking someone’s death on the side of a road…

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And how often do you see a Ford Sierra anymore? – this 1985 model had seen better days but was a blast from the past for someone who grew up in the eighties and nineties…

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The Hindu Temple
However, hidden in Neasden is a jewel.

Nestled on a very ordinary looking road, is an extraordinary building, ranked as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of London by Time Out magazine: the Neasden Hindu Temple, or more properly, BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir…

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It is the largest Hindu temple outside of India…

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Built in 1995 using traditional methods, it consists of nearly 3,000 tonnes of Bulgarian limestone and 2,000 tonnes of Italian marble, all carved exquisitely in India and then shipped back to London…

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The temple is impressive from the outside, but is awesomely intricate and ornate on the inside. As a profoundly holy place I was obviously not able to take photos of the interior. Instead, I padded around in my socks on the deep carpets and on the marble floors as many people prayed and contemplated in silence around me (in another part of the temple people chanted following the microphoned voice of a cross-legged leader). Numerous Hindu shrines adorned with large, porcelainesque, statues of Hindu deities and holy figures including Lord Swaminarayan himself – a 18th-19th century holy man whose followers believe was an incarnation of God.

I find something truly special in the fact that such a remarkable place of spirituality exists in what might otherwise, rather rudely but accurately, be labelled as a dull part of London.