Monthly Archives: May 2013

Per ardua ad astra

Through adversity to the stars

A couple of days ago I fumbled to attach my zoom lens just in time to capture a Lancaster bomber accompanied by, what I think is, a Hawker Hurricane (and probably a Spitfire out of shot) before they disappeared over the rooftops…

Lancaster

The Lancaster is an important piece of engineering for my family, as both my grandfather and great uncle flew them in World War II. My grandfather survived the war, my great uncle did not.

A few hours after straining to capture this blurry shot, I also took this luckily timed shot of passing aircraft…

Virgin balloon

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Amazing Grace: down by the riverside

I have blogged about the river Great Ouse before. It is one of the two important rivers of my childhood (along with the Nene). These are rivers I have fished and walked along many, many times.

The Great Ouse flows through the small town where my family now live: Olney in Buckinghamshire…

Great Ouse

The town stretches up a hill which overlooks the flood plain of the river…

Valley

… which is effectively an island surrounded by the branches of the river…

bridge

It contains beautiful meadows…

Meadow

… and land used as pasture…

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Cow

But the riverside is also home to many wild animals:

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) keeping a sharp eye out for fish or amphibians…

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Another creature that I found out hunting for amphibians is the Grass Snake (Natrix natrix)…

Grass snake

I also surprised a semi-feral Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) wandering in the grass..

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But deeper in the grasses, it was the insects that told me we were at the height of Spring. I found mating Crane Fly (species unidentified)…

Crane Fly

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens)…

Banded Demoiselle

And most wonderful, for me, were the Mayfly: one of the many species of the aptly named genus, Ephemeroptera; the Mayfly is surely the embodiment of ephemeral nature. Mayfly will only live in their adult form for a few hours – maybe a day – to mate and lay their eggs before they die (often sending trout and other fish into a feeding frenzy)…

Mayfly

On the lakes of Emberton, I saw the common Canada Goose (Branta Canadensis)…

Canada Goose

and the much rarer feral breeding population (amongst only around 1000 in the UK) of Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis)…

Barnacle Goose

Barnacle Goose 2

The river runs right past the impressive church of St Peter and St Paul…

Olney Church

In this churchyard is the grave of John Newton (1725-1807)…

John Newton

John Newton started life as a sailor. He was involved in the slave trade and was even enslaved himself for a short period. On his grave stone it says he was originally “an infidel and a libertine”. He had a damascene conversion to Christianity whilst on a ship in a storm.

Eventually, he joined the clergy, renounced his former wicked ways and became a prominent campaigner against slavery. He was pastor of the church and wrote some famous poems and hymns whilst reflecting on his former life and looking out at the countryside of the Great Ouse. By far his most famous hymn is ‘Amazing Grace’ which is believed to be played/sung around 10 million times a year!

Story of a Buddha

Peace Pagoda

Battersea Park in London contains one of three Buddhist Peace Pagodas in the UK. It was built in 1985 in the same year as the 100th birthday and death of Nichidatsu Fuji, a Nichiren monk, who founded the movement, Nipponzan-Myōhōji, which built these monuments to peace around the world. He was a also a friend of Mahatma Gandhi.

The Pagoda contains three large golden images taken from the life story of Gautama Buddha, or simply, The Buddha. I’m sure everyone remembers at least fragments of the life of the Buddha, but in case not…

Siddhartha Gautama

Around 2,500 years ago, there was a young Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived a sheltered life. At the age of 29, he finally encountered the realities of ageing, sickness, and death outside of the confines of the palace.

This moved him profoundly, some say to depression and he initially searched for ways to overcome the suffering of life and death. He gave up his princely possessions and left his family to become an ascetic – basically a religious beggar.

He took the ascetic lifestyle so seriously that he nearly starved to death.

Shakyamuni 1

Eventually he sat beneath a Pipal tree, now known as the famous Bodhi tree, and vowed not to move until he had discovered the Truth about life and death.

He is said to have meditated for 49 days until he reached a state of enlightenment. From that moment, he became known as Gautama Buddha, or Shakyamuni Buddha (Shakya being the name of the district he was from).

Shakyamuni 2

Shakyamuni lived a long life and taught many hundreds of people who became his followers. His teachings were eventually written down as the Sutras and his followers became known as Buddhists.

The final image shows the point at which Shakyamuni died, aged 80, surrounded by his followers.

Shakyamuni 3

In three months time I shall marry a Buddhist in a Buddhist ceremony.

A stroll in the Chilterns

There is a grand union between the UK’s two largest cities, London and Birmingham. It is a canal that is named after its purpose. The Grand Union is the longest waterway in the UK, some 70 miles longer than the River Thames.

Grand Union

The Grand Union cuts through a low point in the Chiltern Hills at Tring, about an hour north of London in the Hertfordshire countryside.

We got off the train at Tring and did a circular walk for a few miles. Starting by walking down by the canal…

abandoned boat

… and then breaking off the tow-path at bridge 137, a two hundred year old structure concreted and strengthened just before the First World War…

Bridge 137 and Lily

Before we left the canal, we walked along to the sound of Spring birdsong, from Warblers like the onamatopeic Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), so difficult to distinguish from the Willow Warbler by sight, but so easy by sound…

Chiff Chaff

… and its cousin, the Whitethroat (Sylvia communis) a summer migrant from sub-Saharan African that I spotted singing on the other side of the canal…

Whitethroat

There was also plenty of noise from Song Thrushes, Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens, Great Tits, Jays, and, one more I did manage to capture, the ubiquitous Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)…

Chaffinch

One Swallow does not a summer make according to Aristotle, but two?… (Hirundo rustica)…

Swallow

From the canal there is a steep walk up into the Chilterns. The hills are a chalk escarpment formed at a similar time to the Alps (and a number of other mountain ranges) when Africa collided with Eurasia, buckling so many of the geological formations to the north.

Carpeting the top of much of the Chilterns is protected woodland where the trees wear jackets of moss to display their age…

Mossy tree

… or badges of fungi where their branches have been wounded or breached (I’m hoping my attempt at poetic language will mask the fact that I cannot identify the species of fungi)…

Fungi

We found the raided husk of a Song Thrush egg…

Song Thrush egg

… alongside the matching Forget-me-nots…

Forget-me-not

… And then the trees open to the largest pasture land in the Chilterns, Northchurch Common…

Northchurch Common

… before a steep walk back down the other side of the escarpment into the picturesque village of Aldbury …

Aldbury

Note how the signpost on the village green actually points back to the pub, the Valiant Trooper, which I thought was exquisitely named following our walk on a warm spring day. I didn’t need another sign, and so the walk ended – as all good walks should – with a pint of locally brewed ale enjoyed in the sun…

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I can heartily recommend the beer, Ridgeway Bitter, named after the very paths that we had walked across less than an hour before enjoying the ale