The weather took a turn when Storm Debby brought in days of torrential downpours and fierce winds, with forecast maps showing a wall of rain heading to Britain. The tail-end of the Storm swept in from the Atlantic, mixing with low-pressure, raising temperatures and causing heavy rain. Thunderstorms and torrential rain hit the country signalling an end to the heatwave that had gripped the country in recent weeks. The continued rainfall and high tides brought risk of travel disruption and damage to family homes.
We kept an eye on the weather forecast as we’d a few things planned in our diary. Thankfully, there was a break in the storm and we managed to venture out. We checked out the Poppies: Weeping Window sculpture by the artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper. It was presented by Middleport Pottery, Stoke-on-Trent City Council and 14-18 NOW, the UK’s art programme for the First World War centenary, as part of the UK-wide tour of the iconic poppy sculptures, Wave and weeping Window. Middleport had been selected as one of only 16 locations featuring a ‘Weeping Window’ across the country. It was also the last tour venue for Weeping Window before it moved to its final presentation at Imperial War Museums in London. At the end of the tour, the sculpture, along with Wave, will become part of the Museums’ collection.
As our timed visit was for 1 pm, we left the casa at 10.40 am. It was bright and sunny with the mercury reaching 18C. Thankfully not much traffic for a Saturday morning. There was no public parking at the venue but a temporary car-park was available for visitors. After paying £3, we had a 10 minute walk to the site. But as usual, it took longer for us as we stopped to take photographs of the old industrial buildings and warehouses that overlooked the Trent and Mersy Canal with its hump-back arched bridges. The route was also decorated with broken pieces of China that was assembled into the walls.
Finally, after about 30 minutes later, we arrived at the venue. Middleport Pottery’s historic Grade II* listed site was built in 1888 for a well-known local ceramics company, Burgess & Leigh Limited. It had maintained unbroken pottery production since its Victorian inception. In June 2011, The United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust (UKHBPT) stepped in to restore Middleport Pottery after the buildings had fallen into disrepair, and embarked on a £9 million, three-year project to regenerate and revitalise the site. In June 2014, HRH The Prince of Wales opened the refurbished Middleport Pottery, now containing the Burleigh factory, a visitor Centre, tea rooms, shop, activity areas and workshops and offices for creative businesses. Today, Middleport Pottery was a thriving visitor destination, and continued as the last working Victorian pottery in the United Kingdom.
Stoke-on-Trent was officially recognised as the World Capital of Ceramics, and Middleport Pottery has been operating since 1889. During the First World War demand for the ceramics goods made in the area greatly increased. These included tableware for hospitals, homes and the military; propaganda-ware, including small ceramic tanks and battleships; plates with patriotic designs or messages on them; and ceramics to mark both the early stages of the war and the Armistice at the end.
It was very busy as it was also the Heritage Open Day weekend. There were a few stalls, exhibitions and showrooms dotted about the place but we headed straight towards the sculpture, walking on the beautiful well-trodden cobbled streets. And when we turned a corner, we were met with a cascade consisting of eleven thousand handmade ceramic poppies were seen pouring from the heights of the Middleport Pottery's Grade II* listed Bottle Oven, to the ground directly below. The bottle oven was one of only 47 left in the Potteries.
It provided a wonderful setting for visitors to reflect on those who made the ultimate sacrifice. This dazzling, reflective and nostalgic arrangement, was originally displayed at The Tower of London from August to November 2014 where 888,246 poppies were displayed, one for every British or Colonial life lost at the Front during the First World War. Weeping Window was from the installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ in conjunction with Historic Royal Palaces. Stoke-on-Trent was integral to the original installation where a locally based company Potclays provided the clay that the ceramic poppies were created from, and advised the artist on technical aspects of the clay. Johnson Tiles, who were also based in Stoke, were approached to assist and contracted to produce hundreds of thousands of the poppies.
We waited patiently for the crowd to clear before we were able to creep closer to the installation. It was also a challenge to photograph due to shadows from the surrounding buildings and also the position of the sun. Thankfully, we managed to get the shots that we wanted. It was very poignant to think that each poppy represented someone who had died during WW1 and this year marked the centenary of the Armistice that brought the bloody conflict to an end. The cascading poppies were a tribute as we reflected, honoured and remembered the sacrifice of our nation’s servicemen.
Then two WW1 enactors dressed in military costumes turned up and posed in front of the sculpture. Quite a few visitors took turns to pose with them. We decided to explore Middleport Pottery in all its glory, especially when it was free for the Heritage Open Day event. We walked on the passageways that were just wide enough for a cart to get through. The historic buildings was filled with stunning original features. There were work rooms where visitors learnt about the history of ceramics and discovering the traditional craftsmanship used today to produce the potteries. We walked past a huge storehouse of mould that were used.for the potteries.
Middleport Pottery had been the Home of Burleigh since 1889. The brand was famous for its blue and white floral tableware, which was made by hand. We browsed the factory shop located in a 1930’s wing where the seconds and discontinued pottery were sold. I was hoping to purchase something as a souvenir but everything was so expensive. I just did a walkabout and drooled . In the end, I went out to one of the pop-up stalls and bought a lovely poppy shawl for only £5 which was usually retailed for £15. Then it was time to walk back to the car.
Since we were already in Stoke, we decided to pop over to see the monkeys at Trentham Monkey Forest which was just 20 minutes away. We’d been here before in 2014 and it would be lovely to see them again. Set within 60 acres of the beautiful Staffordshire woodland, Monkey Forest was home to 140 free-roaming Barbary macaques. These species were upgraded from vulnerable to endangered on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature & Natural Resources) Red List of Threatened Species.
Opened in July 2005, it was the 4th park owned by the de Turckheim family. The other 3 parks were 2 in France and 1 in Germany. One of the aims of the parks was to raise public awareness on the plight of these macaques by creating and preserving an invaluable genetic pool with the population from these parks and strengthening the wild population by re-introducing entire groups of monkeys. Over 600 Barbary macaques (from the other three sister parks) had already been successfully re-introduced into their natural habitat in the Atlas mountains of Algeria and Morocco.
We weren’t surprised that the car-park was full. It was a lovely day to be out and about after the storms. After paying the entrance fees, we made our way through the turnstiles and then joined the queue to get into the fenced compound. Here we were given a short briefing of do’s and dont’s. Food and plastic bags weren’t allowed in and there were lockers where you can store them. As we entered the park, it felt like we were walking in the Atlas mountains of Algeria and Morocco, the setting where these macaques were familiar with, thick forests with pine, oak and cedar trees.
We adjusted our eyes to get used to the shady path, looking around us hoping to catch a glimpse. We didn’t have to wait long because they were everywhere, rustling in the trees and crashing through the branches. We followed the 3/4 mile winding forest path that took us through the woodlands where the monkeys lived. We came across an open field and there were monkeys roaming freely around us. We just don’t know where to point our cameras. They were swinging from the trees, lounging on the grass and combing the grass for food. Guides were situated along the path to explain the monkeys' behaviour.
I was hoping to see a few babies but unfortunately they’d grown up to be youngsters. They were already fully weaned at 6 months and were ready to face their first winter. A few were having a wonderful time having a tumble with their older siblings. Grooming sessions were dotted here and there. These activities kept them healthy as well as reinforced social structures and bonds. Usually, a lower ranked or younger individual was more likely to groom a higher-ranked individual and in return received protection and greater acceptance and standing in the group. Because all the grooming benefitted each individual and engendered bonding between individuals, it facilitated and mediated social interactions within the group, which allowed for the group to live together.
There were plenty of guides about keeping an eye on the visitors if they get too close to these monkeys. Any contacts made them more aggressive and also stopped them engaging in grooming. Worse still, when visitors tried to interact or touch them, it really stressed them. No matter how close they were to us, we kept our distance. There were no fences in place to stop the monkeys from interacting with the visitors, and it was against park rules to touch the animals. The monkeys were provisioned each morning with a mixture of fruit, vegetables, wheat, sunflower seeds and primate pellets. There were hourly feeding sessions where seeds and fruits were scattered so that the monkeys come out into the open and made it easier for the visitors to see them. This also brought the ducks, pigeons and squirrels out for a slice of the action.
The macaques were all identified with a unique tattoo on the inner thigh and all demographics of each individual was known. In order to control the population size, a number of females received contraceptive implants so that a limited number of babies were born annually (5-15 at each site). It would be interesting to know how many babies were born this year. We continued walking where a second group were in residence. The woodland trail allowed visitors to walk amongst these monkeys and immersed in their everyday antics. But we didn’t venture further as it was beginning to rain and decided to call it a day.
We stayed local as Storm Ali and Bronagh lashed the country with severe winds. Ali was the UK’s first named storm of the season. It brought widespread strong winds and heavy rains, with the strongest gusts being recorded in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Western Scotland. Coming hot on the heels of Storm Ali was Storm Bronagh, blowing in overnight with blustery winds and heavy rain resulting in gales that reached 76 mph. We checked out our favourite playground when there was a respite from the wet and windy conditions as the pressure began to build again.
I was so pleased that the natives weren’t blown away by the two aggressive storms. We spotted this Common Blue Male with its violet-blue upper wings and grey-beige undersides. This must be the second brood as they tend to lay eggs in June and then August/September. The caterpillars hibernated and pupated in April and May and became adults in May and June. It was basking in the sunshine, feeding on the nectar of the small, pink flower clusters of the aromatic Wild Majoram.
We continued walking into the reserve and saw a few Common Darter basking on the sunny path, Further along the path, Babe spotted this handsome Southern hawker basking on the brambles. This large, inquisitive dragonfly was usually seen patrolling the waters and hawking through the reed-beds. Hawkers were the largest and fastest flying dragonflies, catching their insect-preys mid-air. They do this by hovering and also by flying backwards. They will still be on the wing through October.
We stopped at Baldwin Hide and Babe a beeline for the corner near to the island on the left hand side. He slowly opened the shutter and sssshhhhh, a female Kingfisher was perched on one of the overhanging branches. All you could hear were our cameras rattling away. We were so close that we could see the stunning colours. The brightly coloured plumage of its orange underparts, turquoise blue wings and electric blue back and rump were unmistakable. Suddenly someone came in and closed the door with a bang. It startled the bird and immediately flew off, flying rapidly, low over the water before disappearing into the creek, a flash of electric blue in flight.
... Under the bridge and gone
Yet bright as a bead behind the eye
The image blazes on
We left the Hide and headed to East Marsh. Halfway along the path, under the overhanging Ash branches, we heard loud, rapid series of piping notes "chit chit chit-chit". We looked up and saw this handsome Nuthatch foraging on the tree trunk. It climbed up, down and around the tree trunk and branches using its powerful toes. Nuthatches fed mainly on nuts and seeds, such as acorns and hazel nuts, in the autumn and winter, and insects, such as spiders and beetles in the summer. Then it flew right above our heads that we could see the black eye stripe, which gave it a bandit-like appearance.
At East Marsh Hide, we made ourselves comfortable. I was hoping to see the Otter family which Babe had seen earlier during the week. Otters had been regularly spotted in the reserve but they didn’t get the memo when I was there. The otter was one of our top predators, feeding mainly on fish (particularly eels and salmonids), water-birds, amphibians and crustacean. The resurgence of the Otter, which was also on the top of the food chain in river environments, was an indicator that English rivers are at their healthiest for more than 20 years, according to the Environment Agency. Unfortunately, this news had not delighted everyone as anglers had reported Otters decimating stocks in fishing lakes
Suddenly, a Grey Heron flew past the hide with its slow-flapping wings and its long legs held out behind it and there was a fish in its beak. I wonder what the anglers thought when they saw this Apart from fishes, they also hunt small birds such as ducklings, small mammals like voles and amphibians. We watched it landing on the nearby island, dropped the wriggling fish before stabbing it with its sharp bill and swallowed in one piece. After the meal, it rest near the water with its head between its shoulder in an hunched up position.
Meanwhile, a Mute Swan was chasing away a youngster around the lake. He was arching his wings over his back and charging at the poor youngster. Once the cygnets were old enough to look after themselves and fly off, the parents cut the parental ties with them and chased them away, sometimes quite aggressively, before the next breeding season began. The parents intentionally distance themselves from the offspring. This was done by swimming away from them and not beckoning them to follow, or, if the cygnets kept staying close to them, the parents started pecking them and approaching in a threat posture, with raised feathers and wings, like they dealt with intruders into their territory.
At first, these ‘chasing off’ motions were gentle and un-sustained, but as time passed, the parents were more aggressive in their actions and the off-springs needed to get the message ASAP. Their time with the parents had ended and they needed to fly off. The reasons for the parents chasing off their offspring that they had cared lovingly for the past 6 months, was that spring was approaching and they needed space and resources to start the breeding cycle again. Also at this age, the youngster was a potential target for an aggressive cob wanting to clear the area of any other swan that wasn’t part of his family and attacked with the intention of killing youngsters from another family. Once they left, the youngsters normally joined the first flock of swans they encountered where they usually stayed until they mature. They then commenced their search for mates and the breeding cycle began.
The Autumnal Equinox brought with it a very nice surprise. It was the moment summer ended and autumn began in the Northern hemisphere, when the sun crossed the Earth’s equator from north to south. As well as signalling the start of a new season, the Autumn Equinox had a spiritual meaning for pagans as it was when day and night was most equal and the earth was balanced. After the equinox, the night became longer than the day and daylight hours shortening. Crowds flocked to Stonehenge to celebrate but twitchers, photographers and nature lovers flocked to a tiny reservoir in Warwickshire to catch a glimpse of a rare bird.
A pair of Grey Phalarope had landed in Napton Reservoir and had been seen feeding for a couple of days on the mudflats. I kept my eye on my Twitter feed to make sure it was still around when we visited during the weekend. We’d been here once before and somehow, we drove past the entrance. We parked at the small car-park that was at the base of a steep embankment, beyond which, lay the reservoir itself. Thankfully, one of Brandon’s regular just walked down the steps and told us where it was. Whoop … whoop. Thank you, kind sir.
Unfortunately, it began to rain and we quickly walked along the embankment of the Southern Pool, with our eyes peeled on the waders by the reed-beds. We met a couple who was standing at the end of the foot-path and they told us where it was. One of the beauty was feeding right below us!!!! I couldn’t wipe the grin of my face. The little tinker was happily picking small prey items from just beneath the surface. It was such an active bird, bobbing up and down and rapidly changing directions. It was quite hard to photograph even when it was just below us as the weather was grey and miserable.
Both birds were youngsters and in their first winter plumage with dark streaks across their backs, wings and caps. Their full grey plumage had yet to emerge and both birds possessed a light apricot buff on their necks and parts of their breast. Soon,they will moult into a full grey winter plumage before acquiring their spectacular red breeding plumage next spring, when they were back in the Arctic. These birds had flown all the way from Arctic Canada or Greenland and from their utter indifference to us, had probably never seen a human before. Soon they will head south, to overwinter off the coast of West Africa before heading back north. It was a privilege to have seen this beautiful bird.
We ended the month by picking the last figs that had miraculously ripened all at once. It had been a bumper year for us as we’d been picking them on alternate days. We’d this tree for nearly 15 years and had moved with us from Wales, Scotland and now in Coventry. I am glad that I planted it in a huge pot. Although considered a fruit, the fig was actually a flower inverted into itself. Originally native from Turkey to northern India and the Mediterranean, it was amazing to see it doing so well in a grey and wet England. Bonn appetit.