Tag Archives: River

Mapping the land

A sense of ‘place’ is very important to me. Understanding my ‘Patch’ in the UK requires understanding a bit about East London, Epping Forest, Essex, English parkland, scrub, grassland, and woodland.

I have written many words about the ‘place’ of the French ‘Patch’; the Mediterranean scrub (maquis and garrigue), the foothills of the Pyrenees, Aleppo Pine woodland etc. Context is important, whether that be geographical, geological, climate, botanical, etc.

For these reasons, I am slightly obsessed with mapping the land. I have done a bit of that before, but I wanted to share some free online tools that I find super useful when trying to understand the patch that I study.

First, location. The blue dot below shows you how close we are to the Mediterranean and to the Pyrenees.

France map

Thanks to Google Maps for this and the other maps

Second: area. The ‘Patch’, as I define it, sits within a trapezoid of four small French villages. The total area that I watch for birds and other flora and fauna is just under a whopping 10km squared. I know this because a website allows me to calculate it pretty accurately:

Blanes patch area

Remember that I am the only person who ‘works’ this Patch from a wildlife perspective, and only a few times a year. To set it in broader context, it is interestingly almost exactly twice the size as my London Patch (France c.10km2 vs Wanstead c.5km2) which is Wanstead Flats, Wanstead Park and some intervening streets combined as well as being ‘worked’ or watched by several other people on a regular basis.

In terms of elevation, the lowest point on the French Patch is around 166 metres above sea level whilst the highest point (Mont Major) is a pretty lofty 534m. My wife took the picture below of me standing on the highest point looking down over the Southern valley with the Pyrenees away in the distance.

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For another reference point, the Wanstead patch is exceedingly flat and low in comparison; ranging from 7m above sea level to 30m (that is the height of a medium sized tree!).

Although I know my way around the Patch pretty well now after a decade of regular walks, I have still found it useful to map key landmarks and paths on top of Google Map images to help me get a sense of scale.

Macro map Blanes

The entire Patch and surrounding villages

To give a sense of perspective, the red marked ‘track’ (or ‘chemin’), that we have to drive to reach the house, is almost exactly 2km long. If you are wondering how I can be so precise, it is because Google Maps has a helpful tool to measure distance accurately.

Track distance

Zooming in a bit from the colour-coded annotated map above, I have produced several more detailed maps showing routes of walks and landmarks, such as the example below. As you can see, I don’t exactly use scientific or formal names for the routes and places on the Patch (hence the ‘steep bit’) and will sometimes name places after wild features or species that I associate the area with, e.g., “Bee-eater Valley”, “Holm Oak Wood”, and “Griffon Vulture Hill”.

Mont Major

Using the nifty 3D functions on Google Maps (no, this isn’t a sponsored post), the topography is brought to life a little more by the the image below, with the house marked with a blue dot and the highest peak to the top left at the end of the orange line.

3D Blanes map

The main stream which rises on the Patch and flows West then North towards the little town of St Pierre-de-Champs is named after the land (or vice versa). ‘Ruisseau de Blanes’ is some 5km long (again thanks to the tool on a well known free online map) and joins a tributary of L’Orbieu river which, in turn, joins the river Aude (which shares a name with the department/province we live in) and flows into the Mediterranean just North of Narbonne.

Ruisseau de Blanes

For much of the year, the stream bed of Ruisseau de Blanes is dry above ground. As part of my obsession with understanding every bit of the Patch, the other day I decided to walk along the bed and track my way to the edge of the Patch. This is far easier said than done, as some sections of the river are inaccessible, extremely steep, or heavily overgrown.

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Looking back upstream with the outcrop we call ‘Eagle Peak to the top left

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Scrambling my way over an ancient rock fall on the stream bed

At points the silence, that is so alien to my London sensibilities, was almost overwhelming. No traffic, no planes, no running water, no summer insects, very little bird noise. A Raven‘s deep croak echoed in the valley and got louder and louder until the giant corvid came into view low over the trees. I was staggered how loudly I could hear its wingbeats; wingbeats which sped up rapidly when the bird caught sight of me. The different pitches of the wingbeat of every bird that I came across became clear in the silence, even the high speed flutter of firecrest and Goldcrest as they darted from tree to tree.

It was a jolly adventure. Jolly that was, until I worked my way back the way I came and realised I had lost the point at which the woodland path joined the riverbed. I then remembered that when I had broken out of the heavy maquis onto the stream bed, I had taken a photograph looking downstream. I studied the picture and walked backwards trying to make the puzzle fit. Eventually, I found the right point (took another picture – see below – to illustrate the story) and then found the hidden path to the right.

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Image to the left taken about an hour before the one on the right

Of course, we have lost so many of the ancient instinctive skills of tracking and mind mapping the land that our ancestors would have used daily (and without the use of camera phones and Google Maps!)

Throughout history I imagine we have always looked for features to give us a sense of place. On the Patch we have a tiny remote chapel that is but a node on a huge long pilgrimage walk.

I often drop by, noting the goat droppings on the floor and the rusty little cross on a makeshift rock altar. But yesterday I noted a new feature, above the crucifix and some christian graffiti was a twisted stick. I don’t know what this stick was, but I perceived it as an echo of a more ancient religious mandala; a pagan offering, perhaps, helping to place this little religious building in the natural world around it. A sense of ‘place’ that seems to stand outside of time.

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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!

A Sunday Cycle: Lee Valley Park

Those of you who know me, know what I do, and know who I do it for, may be aware that the last couple of weeks have a been a little busy for me. In fact they were the craziest two weeks of my professional career so far. Last weekend was a complete write-off and so I wasn’t able to post any updates.

As I worked late into the night (after night), I would occasionally think back to the weekend before my world seemed to tip upside down and to a day cycling in the Lea Valley.

The river Lea (or Lee), ‘London’s second river’ apparently springs up in the midst of what is now the heavily concreted suburbia of Luton. I always imagine the source of rivers to be in some hilly meadow somewhere. But this inauspicious and urbanised birthplace is perhaps apt. The Lea has been carefully shaped and guided by man with much of its course straightened and navigable all the way down to its tidal end where it spills through the beautiful but largely decaying industrial desert of London’s east end at Bow Creek and into the Thames. I took the photo below on a winter walk where I didn’t come across another human being for over two miles despite being close to the Thames.

But this industrial winter view was far removed from the summer scenes nearly twenty miles north just outside the M25. The Lee Valley (just get used to my contrary spelling of ‘Lea’) punctures London like a green and blue spear. Have a look at a map at the string of reservoirs, canals and tributaries that act as wild refuge – almost like a path – down through the concrete jungle and towards the Thames.

Once you get outside of London, the Lee Valley opens up even more into a blissful mix of  of arrow-straight canals surrounded by pools, ponds, lakes, and streams.

You can see my partner, below, waiting almost patiently while I faffed around stopping every other minute taking photos and delaying our journey towards a Sunday pub lunch in a beer garden by the river.

Lunch was further delayed by some rather amusingly cute calves…

Further distractions came from the wild flowers growing along the waterside, such as this wild iris, Yellow Flag…

and Common Mallow…

and wild Chamomile…

and Common Poppy…

As last weekend was spent stuck in a largely empty office tower working in the stuffy heat with no air conditioning, I would occasionally cast my mind back to the weekend before of pure country air trundling past meadows and waterways…

I should have perhaps paid more heed to the grey clouds’ warning of an almighty oncoming storm and the Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times!”