Deep waters

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The fish are watching me watching them. Every so often, one or another will come to the corner of the aquarium and look out into the world around my desk and we watch each other, eye to eye. It is a strange feeling, wondering who is the observer and who the observed at such moments… and can we truly draw that distinction?

It is only with the advent of modern technology that we have really had the privilege of looking beneath the waters and watching the piscine world. I remember being spellbound by Cousteau’s undersea adventures as a child, exploring waters I will never see. The rich diversity was breathtaking, but there was not the same intimacy as living with fish and watching them day by day.

Keeping fish is an old, old story. The Roman’s did it, so did the Chinese. Around 50 AD, the Romans first used glass on one wall of their marble tanks in order to keep sea barbel. The Chinese kept goldfish in porcelain bowls. Conditions for the fish, with insufficient oxygen and no water flow cannot have been good. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that fishkeeping began to catch on in Britain and the technology was still too poor to maintain healthy communities of fish.

By the middle of the twentieth century, we had aquarium heaters, filters and electric lighting. Keeping tropical fish became a viable proposition and our understanding of the necessary parameters for water quality, temperature and a diverse ecosystem has grown since then. We have learned how to mimic the natural environment to a point where most aquarium fish are now tank bred; wild-caught fish are frowned upon and many species now extinct in the wild through environmental changes are preserved only by dedicated hobbyists.

It is a bit of a touchy subject, because the original ‘specimens’ were all wild-caught. Even today, there are still those desperate to get hold of newly discovered species who will pay through the proverbial nose in order to acquire the latest novelty… often long before there is any real understanding of their needs… and the primary need of a wild fish, after all, is to be wild. Novelty is also responsible for the aberrations of the profit-seekers who will chemically dye fish to make these beautiful creatures ‘more attractive’.

Most fishkeepers, though…even the accidental ones like me… are simply fascinated by their beauty and behaviour. Their individual characters soon show themselves. They have a distinct hierarchy, they dance for their mates, they even play games… and for the first time in history we can see these creatures face to face with perfect clarity in an environment as close to nature as any confinement can ever be.

If all they, and generations of their ancestors, have ever known is life in a tank, then their environment will not feel like confinement…it will feel like home. As they look out of their glass boxes at us, comfortably confined with the glass and concrete of the modern home, I wonder if they think the same of us?

Fresh air

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I had an odd and unexpected encounter today. One of those chance meetings that seem small and unimportant yet which leave a mark deeper than we realise at the time. I had wandered over to the next village this afternoon… on a quest for information about a legendary tree…one with a history some two thousand years in its growing. While I did not find the one I was looking for, I found what I needed to know about its eventual demise and unlooked for replacement. Of course, Quainton is a glorious old village with wonderful buildings… and so many overhead cables that getting a decent shot is nigh on impossible. But although I had the inevitable camera in tow, that was not my primary reason for the jaunt. I just needed air. It has been a rough few days.

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I met a lovely old gentleman in the churchyard who taught me a lot about the village and showed me the oldest buildings still standing there, telling me of the medieval forge and culvert discovered under one of the houses when it was renovated. We walked through the village together and he told me of how it had changed over the years, pointing out the chaffinches, dragonflies and blue-tits as we walked, and taking time to show me the house-martin’s nests under the eaves of one of the houses. It was a slow, leisurely progress, stopping every few steps for the dog to sniff and my companion to rest. He was a very old man.

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It is a mellow place with the traditional village green bordered by cottages whose roofs are sighing with age and the George and Dragon… what else?… looks out to the ancient preaching cross and the windmill that is the most visible landmark of the village.

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It is the details that I notice though. The little marks of human hands and humour, like the variety of thatch creatures perched on the roofs, the village pump, or the small crosses carved into the stone of the church by pilgrims who have long since reached their ultimate destination. In many of the churches there are little games carved into the pillars and walls near the pews… often low enough to be out of sight of the officiant. You can imagine small hands surreptitiously working away to make these miniature game boards, whiling away the boredom, perhaps, of a service then in Latin and beyond their reach.

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I love the quirkiness of the fads and fancies that traverse the ages… from the civic pomp and ceremony of the Victorians to the graphic representations of death from earlier times.. the memento mori that may appear gruesome or shocking to our eyes today, yet which served as a reminder that in death there is neither princely estate nor poverty… it is the great leveller of all and in the beyond of their belief only the riches of virtue would hold meaning. In an era before the advent of antiseptics and antibiotics, when life was fragile and tenuous and dying not a sanitised process, perhaps they did not shrink as we do today from its presence.

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My companion and I stopped before the place that had once been the old rectory, now undergoing renovation. He admired the new capstones on the gateposts while I quietly admired a bronzed and shirtless Adonis worthy of any sculptor’s efforts.  The old man asked me suddenly what it was that made me take photographs… what was it I tried to capture? I turned my glance from the flexed and gleaming muscles to the equal and warmer beauty of the wrinkled face and the twinkling, questioning eyes. I had a fleeting vision of the thousands of pictures on my hard drive… birds and flowers, skies and buildings, trees and faces, architecture and hilltops, history and humour…and realised I had never really asked myself that question. For a moment, looking mentally at that dizzying array of images I was at a complete loss. There was, it seemed, no common thread. A mish-mash of images, a plethora of subjects… They are not all pretty pictures, not all are gentle, some are harsh, some wild, some dark… and beauty is such a subjective vision anyway…

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Then I saw it, the common denominator, winding through them all, a sparkling cord that bound them together. I chuckled as I understood the Ariadne’s thread that has always led me, I think. “Life,” I answered, still laughing at myself. “I love Life.” My companion smiled and nodded, satisfied, as if he were a teacher and I a dense pupil who had finally understood. Maybe he was right.

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Mist on the Moors

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… We met up with author and blogger Graeme Cumming and his partner for another wander over the moors. We followed a path that leads from a place of hoary legend and gory history, where a headless body was found, up onto a moor cloaked in low clouds.

We climbed to the plateau, sharing the archaeological features on the way… features mostly hidden by mist and bracken. In the distance, limestone cliffs shelter this place that is hidden in plain sight, unseen from the road that snakes through the valley.

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From here you can see the distinctive shapes of the hills that are shadowed in stone… except that we couldn’t as they were wreathed in cloud. But what you can see, if you know where to look, is a stone circle.

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Like all the circles in this area, the stones are quite small…as if their builders knew that power resides in what lies behind the symbol, not in the form itself. The land seems to centre on the circle and we have passed hours watching the dome of the sky sparkle above us.

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But we haven’t been back for two years… and here, as at Barbrook, reeds and bracken begin to encroach on the space within the stones. For the first time here, there is a sense of unease… not about the land, but an overlay, imposed and alien.

Looking at the stone named for the Fae, where their lights, it is said, can sometimes be seen dancing, we saw a possible reason why. The hollow  in the top of the stone was filled with something that I hoped, just for a second, was a mangled plum… but which I knew was nothing so acceptable.

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The fresh entrails of some small creature… no fur or feathers, no bones of sign of predator, were neatly placed in the hollowed stone. A fire pit in the centre of the circle held newly burned cinders…evidence of a Friday night sojourn beneath a full moon. It is not the first time we have found offerings here, though usually they are just flowers. Nothing so darkly disturbing as this.

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We walked the circle, weaving light about the stones and did what we could. I love these moors and the ancient places they shelter and feel a responsibility to care for them. There was no caring in what we had found. For the first time, we did not linger and I, for one, felt nothing but anger and distaste for what had been done.

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A rift in reality

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We were up at the crack of dawn, not because there had been too much wine the night before, which might have been expected during an evening in an Italian restaurant, but because the bug that had been stalking us for days had decided it would be fun to strike its victims during the celebratory meal and had knocked us off our feet.

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With no clear plan for the days ahead, we lingered over coffee, debating what we should do. The evening was taken care of… we were going to see Robin Williamson. We had missed his Sheffield performance last year, due to the dates of the Ilkley workshop, and his music was the main reason I was lingering in the north.

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We decided that it would be a good idea to check on the stone circle at Barbrook. After the work we had done there, we needed to re-visit the stones and, if nothing else, pay our respects and thank the spirit of the place for the gifts we had been given. The sun was rising steadily as we drove, climbing the long road to crest the hills above the awakening city.

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Three, they say, is the charm…and this was the third time in less than a week that we had passed through the gates onto Ramsley Moor. The morning mists wove mystery from the pale sunlight and the bejewelled land was bathed in gold. It may just have been the beauty of the morning, but the place felt different, alive and awake, as if two thousand years had dropped away and we were stepping beyond the veiling mists back into a time long gone.

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Retracing our steps along the path, just a few days after the workshop, it seemed like a different place. More of the mounds were visible,  shifting  swathes of mist opened pathways and vistas into a landscape of dreams. What we had done had undoubtedly made a vast difference here… though whether that difference was objective or just in the way we perceived the land is another matter.

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Nor does it matter. Reality is only real in as far as we perceive it to be. It is our perception that determines how we can interact with it and what our reaction to it might be. A tiny spider, if perceived as a threat, will make us afraid. If the darkness holds monsters for a child, the fear is real. If a stone circle seems awake… that too is real in its own realm. When we left the moor at last, we were smiling.

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Fruits of Form…

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… “‘Space’ is difficult.”

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“What we call space might not actually be spacious.”

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“‘Specious Space’? Nice…”

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“Like, what we call colour, might not actually be colourful.”

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“Even the space we’ve got and can all agree on is difficult.”

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“It’s empty, yet, holds everything.”

Water babies

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Angel fish was in his accustomed place where he waits every morning, knowing that as soon as I have opened the doors for the dog, he will be fed. Ani bounds up onto the sofa and sticks her head over tank as soon as I open it to feed them. She has developed an acquisitive interest in the various fish foods. Angel fish doesn’t care, he comes up to the surface and will take his breakfast from your fingers, even with the small dog so close.

Except, he wouldn’t be having breakfast. You could see that straight away. It is an odd thing, even before you have a chance to really look, you just know when a fellow creature has died….. the lights have gone out.

I switched on the aquarium lamps, hoping I was wrong… he had seemed fine the night before, no signs at all of any problems and he was only a few years old, but sadly he was gone. Ani watched quietly as I netted the lifeless body and placed him in a suitable coffin, laying her head on her paws as if she knew.  In the few short hours since bedtime, his scales had dulled, his colours dimmed and the graceful expression of life had left him.

These things happen, especially with creatures we have bred and interbred solely for their appearance. As their keepers, we have a responsibility to learn their needs and provide for them, but sometimes even that is not enough.

My eyes flicked back to the aquarium. The big pleco was stuck to the glass round the corner of the tank, hiding amongst the plants he has chosen to call home. Not that he can hide very well when he deploys that huge sail-fin… but he thinks he can and that makes him feel safe. His plants are getting a little sparse… Mad Fish and co are experts at deforestation, even though I amuse my son, their previous keeper, by supplementing their fish food with blanched vegetables every day. They just eat those, anything else they can find… then have the plants for dessert anyway.

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I’m getting a little concerned about Mad Fish. He’s slowing down…he is a very old fish for his species but I am glad he has a shoal around him at last. They are always active, always darting around at speed… I can understand why he rests a lot these days. I still feel a little sadness for the long lonely time when he must have felt like a fish out of water on his own. Knowing little of tropical fish when I adopted the aquarium, I wouldn’t have questioned his odd behaviour had my son not mentioned that he thought he was missing his departed mate. We didn’t even know what he was, but a bit of research was an eye opener. So now he has a shoal and is no longer Mad Fish, but Grandfather Fish.

The little pleco was out and about too. He hides most of the time, which is a pity as he is beautiful. I didn’t know what he was either, apart from being a plectostomus. Now I do… after hours trawling fish sites, I found him… he’s a dwarf clown plec and that means I need to buy some bog-wood. I had no idea that some fish need the stuff to help them digest their food, but they do.

I’ve even learned how the fish can tell me when something is wrong. Just by watching their behaviour you can tell if something has disturbed them. The signals and body language are complex but not incomprehensible. Some are easy to understand… when they all swim up to the surface more than usual, or like the ‘tank canaries’, the little rummy-nosed tetras, whose brilliant red markings fade the moment the water quality changes. Even a water change is enough and I wait for their colours to glow to let me know the tank is safe.

The things I have learned since having the fish! Water parameters and temperatures, bacteria and how important it is to have plenty rather than keeping the tank too clean. Breeding habits, snail management, the growing of aquatic plants and a whole host  of things about fish health.

I knew a bit about that from looking after Nick’s pond… you learn the specific needs of the creatures you care for, but a pond is an alien realm…  no matter how clear the water, we really see only the surface and the shadowy world beneath is a different dimension. With a tank, you see the fish clearly, face to face, in a way that allows a completely different level of observation and a more intimate relationship.

As I watched Ani’s joy as she bounced through the long grass, getting drenched with the early morning dew, I was thinking about how much we can learn by just looking and paying attention. The difference between the pond and the tank is quite amazing. With the pond, I know the fish and their behaviour, but only seen from afar… apart from when they choose to come to the surface and interact with me. With the tank, there is an intimacy that allows me to see into their world. I could just look at the pretty fishes, or I can choose to see individuals, each with their own habits and character and learn to know them. Either way, as you learn to care for them, you start to care about them as individuals.

It is pretty much the same with people too. There are some, like the fish in the pond, whose lives keep them from intimacy and the only people who ever really know them are those for whom they will surface for a while, meeting them halfway. With most people, though, it is more like living with an aquarium except guard against too much intimacy. Even though we share a world, we only look, rather than take the time to see them. We may pass a hundred faces or more in a single day and never see more than that… yet every person is unique and has a character all their own, a story, a gift… something that makes them stand out from the rest of humanity as themselves.

Seeing instead of looking, learning each other’s needs and learning to look after each other so that we learn to care about each other.  Maybe it is as simple as keeping fish.

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Derbyshire’s Green Man…

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Beyond the forest’s leafy shade,

The hooded one, with giant’s pace

From pinnacle to pinnacle

Leap’t silently, in moonlit grace… 

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In eremitic solitude

In caverns deep to meditate…

Within, the riddle of the night,

A key that will elucidate…

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Beyond the stones, to four once nine

To where the goddess meets her mate

And heavens dance at winters turn

Bends earthwards to illuminate.

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A Journey at Solstice

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I wrote this  a few years ago after a journey through the English countryside one Solstice. As the vernal equinox marks the turning of the year once again, I thought I would share this again today.

I have always been aware of magic. A strange, eclectic upbringing allowed me to grow without religious prejudice in a world where Bast and barguests were as possible as any other cat or dog and where Jehovah, Allah and the Buddha were held in equal respect.

I was taught to love the Earth in all her beauty and mystery, through folk tales and science in equal proportion. There was nothing of glamour attached to magic. It was simply there. Always and everywhere.

So what happened at Solstice…just happened…

I work in field sales and one of the privileges of that job is to organise one’s own workload. So, as Thursday dawned windy, but gloriously sunny, I decided to visit customers in the Cotswolds and treat my city–sated soul to the beauty of thatched cottages and rolling English hills. For some reason, I threw a pair of jeans and my painting easel in the car along with the files, which I’ve never done before.

I had a good day with customers and my final visit took me within a stone’s throw of the Rollright Stones, a stone circle set in a ring of trees on top of a hill. I went there once before with a friend and had shown him how to dowse with copper rods. This was the first time I’d been on my own and, being midweek, I had the site almost to myself.

I parked in the lane and stripped off my business suit, feeling that as I did so, I was stripping away the world’s perception of my persona. Donning jeans and T-shirt brought me back to simplicity devoid of pretension or pretence.

Leaving the mobile phone behind I stepped away from the humdrum need to make survival money and felt I crossed more than one threshold as I walked between the gateposts.

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The circle, though weathered, is almost complete. The stones stand like broken teeth around a green lawn, not manicured, but scattered with daisies like little bright stars lifting their faces to the Light. The path enters the circle at the wrong place. A stone there has fallen, leaving a natural entrance, but it was never the original portal. Nevertheless, I enter the circle and as there is no-one around to notice, I bow to the Light and enter barefoot, treading deosil around the perimeter.

The sand is hot underfoot, the circle is sheltered from the wind by a horseshoe of trees, but here and there little dust devils dance. At the four quarters flowers have been left as offerings, sweet williams, with their heady scent and blood red petals, stark against the white and ochre of the lichen covered stones. Last night was the summer solstice and I have heard that this ring is still used by devotees of the Craft. I know that I will find the same flowers at the King Stone, a single monolith, as well as at the fallen burial chamber called the Whispering Knights, which form a triangle with the original entrance to the circle.

Circles and triangles take my mind to the Tree of Life with its great inrush of Cosmic Force and I wonder what the ancients were doing when they built this Temple of Light.

I walk to the centre of the lawn and sit, cross legged, in the circle. I am no longer alone; four men are also seated on the grass, talking quietly. We are isolated here and perhaps I should be careful. Yet I know there is no threat and a deep serenity enfolds me. One of the men stands to leave and I hear the words “Blessed be” repeated softly.

The sky above is a clear blue, scattered with clouds chasing each other in the wind. There is no road noise here; the only sounds are the birds and the rustling of leaves, overlaid by the muted conversation of the men. I close my eyes and begin the fourfold breathing as I have been taught. My body relaxes and I sink into the landscape.

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In my mind I see the circle as a great chalice. It is empty save for its memories, yet I feel it was meant to be full of Light, a beacon for the soul. An empty vessel fulfils no purpose. The chalice is a vessel which gives form to that with which it is filled.

From the centre of the circle I renew my pledge of service. Around me I feel the wind spiralling into a great silver vortex, carrying me skywards on the wings of faith, yet the Earth is steady and solid beneath me and the grass tickles my feet in the slight breeze. Reality contradicts itself and I let it carry me with it, humbled and awed.

The vortex climbs through the azure haze, upwards, outwards, expanding and encompassing, the rhythm a great heartbeat, a counterpoint to my own, carrying reflected Light back to the heavens. The spiralling slows, stops climbing and rests, perfectly balanced on the point of the vortex in the circle where I sit. Then I am falling, in decreasing circles as it winds down and down, until the wind rushes through the Earth, in a subterranean vortex of white fire, funnelled from on high. The afternoon sun is warm on my upturned face as I swirl ever faster in the rushing fire. I can feel a pressure mounting. Suddenly, like a great star bursting, the fire spreads through the stones and out across the landscape. I can see it from my vantage point among the stars, a vast net of pure white force, veins of lambent silver spreading out across the land, carrying Light like blood.

One of the men laughs softly and that seems to fit. Joy is allowed. I open my eyes and smile, a smile shared by the men. Inside I feel different, a golden serenity which carries me home to my hearth.

Later, leafing through a book while I wait to kidnap the bathroom from my hoard of teenagers, I read the author’s words on how to honour the ancient places and smile. Perhaps those who work still at Rollright have kept it alive. It is I who was honoured today. Call it imagination or daydream if you will. I only know how it has made me feel and that today was a day of unforgettable beauty.

A Walk in the Woods…

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From the Derwent Dam we walked a little further down the long, narrow valley to the lower reservoir. The river still flows, mingling with the waters that flooded the valley and drowned a village.

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The water is higher than it was on my last visit, but even so, there are traces of the past, hiding just below the water if you look.

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While you might dismiss some of the stones as being part of the dam construction, there are places where it is evident that once there were homes and fields here. It is a strange feeling to look out over the water and the fanciful might imagine the ghosts of the past in the deep.

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Spring green banishes such thoughts… tiny white oxalis star the grass. Drifts of pink cuckoo flowers and forget-me-nots form a pastel carpet, and everywhere there are bluebells.

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The great swathes of blue are past their best now, yet it is a still a magical sight to see them fill the woodland shadows with the colour of a summer sky.

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There are other kinds of magic in the woods, making it a wonderful place for small children. A mole looks out from the undergrowth. Old logs have been transformed into sculpted mushroomsand  bug hotels.

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Small seats had been created, as if for Goldilocks’ hosts and a train of logs. Little ones would love it.

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My favourite piece, though, is an oak leaf bench, supported on acorns, bearing the only slug I have ever wanted to get close to.

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Around the dead trees transformed into art, the whole valley is fairly bursting with life. The touch of new green and flowers are everywhere, even on the apparently changeless evergreens.

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It isn’t just the greenery either. The reservoir is home to a large avian population and smiling mother ducks wander the car-parks in search of crumbs for their broods, while proud fathers look on.

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Trying to photograph the ducklings, I was struck by how efficiently camouflaged they are. It is almost impossible to get a clear shot as, the moment they move, the lines of their faces and bodies blur and their shape disappears.

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There were other birds too, as well as the innumerable ducks. Shady corners held feeders and nesting boxes. Finches were everywhere, though it was not always easy to spot them amongst the leaf-litter as they competed with the ducks .

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Nor were the birds the only things flying that afternoon. The changeable weather, that went from sunshine to cloud and back, seemed to confuse one small creature and we watched the aerial antics of the bat for quite a while.

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As the afternoon wore on, we headed back towards the cars, stopping for ice cream on the way at the little kiosk and watching the birds. It had been a lovely interlude, but we were still far from our destination.

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Even though time was getting on, there would be time for another stop on the way to Stockport, so, agreeing to meet in Castleton, we regained the cars and headed west…