The birth of AND

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Felbrigg Lake at dawn – courtesy of Robin Williams

For anyone remotely interested, I’ve recently started another blog, the Aylmerton Nature Diary or AND for short, which is intended to do ‘what it says on the can’ that is, to cover the wildlife events in and around the small parish of Aylmerton, here in the north east corner of the delightful, bird-rich county of Norfolk. A sort of internet, fun-sized, version of the Natural History of Selbourne, if you will – only lacking the observation, insight and literary style of Gilbert White! As you’ll see from the blog, a good proportion of the Felbrigg estate is conveniently situated within the parish. Felbrigg has a notable place in the ornithological history of Norfolk, being the first place that Honey Buzzard and the only place that Pied Flycatcher have successfully nested. It remains the county stronghold for Mandarin Duck. There are other important birding sites within the parish too, including the ancient wooded Cromer ridge, a known fly-way for migrating raptors and breeding stronghold of Firecrest.

You can get to my Aylmerton Nature Diary by clicking this link


Mandarin Duck – a rare breeder in Norfolk

Thomas Hardy Trail, part 2 – Behind the Scenes

We’re just back from Dorset, where we stayed at Lower Bockhampton and travelled around much of Hardy’s Wessex searching out the sites believed to have been the inspiration behind many of the locations used by him in his popular novels and poems. Here is a selection of some of the fabulous and fascinating places we visited.

Under the Greenwood Tree

The replacement of the church choir by an organ is a prominent theme in the novel. Although the setting was the church at Stinsford, where Hardy’s father was a musician in the choir, the gallery was subsequently removed. TH took guests to see one of the few remaining galleries in Dorset, at nearby Puddletown


17th century graffiti on the musicians gallery


Keeper Day’s cottage, in Yalbury Wood – based on this remote cottage in Yellowham Wood


Pair of Blue Eyes

The Smith’s cottage in the Valency valley – where, in the book, the young architects parents reside


Widow Jethway’s cottage  – based on another cottage in the same remote Cornish valley


In real life, Hardy’s takes Emma down to the stream in the Vallency valley for a picnic and, in a famous event, she loses a glass in the water. Hardy captures the moment in a sketch and later a poem – Under the Water Fall


Paddle steamers feature in several of Hardy’s novels, in this particular one there is only a brief reference.  The Waverley, here pictured moored at Swanage, is the only working ocean-going vessel of her kind left in the world


Far from the Madding Crowd

This grand property was the model for Upper Farm, which Bathsheba inherits from her uncle (photo courtesy of RW)


This, now converted tithe barn at Cerne Abbas, is thought to be the inspiration for the wedding celebration barn in the novel


Lulworth Cove, the scene of Sergeant Troy’s thwarted attempt to drown himself


TH’s poem,  At Lulworth Cove a Centuary Back 


The Hand of Ethelberta

In the novel, Ethelberta rides to Corvesgate (Corfe Castle) on a donkey


Christopher Julian, one of Ethelberta’s suitors, plays the organ in Melchester cathedral – Salisbury, in real life


The Trumpet-Major

The lower mill at Sutton Poyntz is believed to be Hardy’s inspiration for Overcombe Mill, where the heroine lodges and from where she can observe the regimental goings-on in their camp, on the hill behind


Anne, the heroine, watches the Fleet departing for Spain from Pulpit Rock, close by this lighthouse on Portland Beal


Figure of King George III, carved in this Dorset chalk escarpment, to honour a visit by the royal


King George is also commemorated in this recently restored statue on Weymouth seafront


Major of Casterbridge

Some of the remaining booths at Weyhill Fair, where the drunken Michael Henchard sold his wife, Susan, to a passing sailor!


Henchard’s Casterbridge house after he’s made his fortune and became mayor of the town


Susan spies Michael Henchard at a meeting in a first floor room of the King’s Arms Hotel, years after their estrangement


Gray’s Bridge – frequently visited by Henchard in his more melancholy moods (photo courtesy RW)


Through an unfortunate chain of events Henchard is financially ruined, but is then given, by the townsmen of Casterbridge, a seed merchant’s shop to manage, overlooking the church yard


Tess of the d’Urbervilles

The model for Tess’s family home, before the death of her father and their subsequent eviction


Tess goes to work as a milk-maid on Talbothays Farm, before her marriage to Angel. The dormer window is said to be the bedroom where Tess prepared for her wedding


West Stafford church, used by Hardy as the location for Tess & Angel’s wedding


Wellbridge manor where Tess & Angel spend their honeymoon


The fatherless family camp in the churchyard, under the d’Urberville window at Bere Regis church, seeking recognition of their rightful inheritance


The Cross in Hand, hidden in a Dorset hedgerow – omen of mis-fortune for Tess


After Tess murders Alec, she and Angel run away. They take shelter at Stonehenge, where she is arrested and subsequently tried and hanged


Jude the Obscure

Jude finds employment as a stonemason, working on Melchester cathedral (Salisbury)


Jude is believed to have resided in accommodation close to Town Gate


Sue, Jude’s cousin, lives in Shaston (Shaftesbury)




The Well-beloved

Thought to be the model for Avice’s cottage, now the Portland Museum


Pierston rents Sylvania Castle in his pursuit of Avice


Photograph of Thomas Hardy, taken in his study at Max Gate, shortly before his death in 1928. From humble beginnings he became one of the most prodigious 19th century British authors, with more than ten popular novels and nearly a thousand poems to his name. He lived the majority of his life in Dorset and created a virtual landscape – Wessex, through which he captured, described and preserved many of the customs, traditions and hard-ships of a by-gone era.



For more photographs, covering the whole Thomas Hardy Trail week, visit










Thomas Hardy Trail, part 1 – Life & Times


Portrait of Thomas Hardy, born 1840 – died 1928

We’ve come down to Dorset for a few days with my brother Robin – over from Australia, to do the Thomas Hardy Trail. Staying at the wonderfully atmospheric Old Post Office in Lower Bockhampton – which features explicitly in a couple of his poems, is opposite the old primary school which the young Hardy attended – just a short walk from his birthplace, close to Dorchester – Hardy’s Casterbridge and central for most of the important location throughout his life and, consequently, many of the places on which he based his novels and poems. We (well actually Jane and Robin!) have drawn heavily on the many available sources to create the itinerary, but we’ve found The Landscape of Thomas Hardy by Denys Kay-Robinson to be amongst the most useful. The majority of locations we’ve visited are to be found in the delightful county of Dorset but we have wandered more widely around ‘outer Wessex’ in our quest of discovery.
This blog is divided into two parts, the first covers most of the places significant in Hardy’s own life, the second, details the actual locations – about which there is a whole library of material and much debate, believed to have been used by Hardy as the backdrop to his novels and poems.

Lower Bockhampton, location of the Old Post Office


The Old Post Office, Lower Brockhampton


The porch of the old village school where Thomas Hardy was a pupil


The water meads across which TH would have walked on his way to and from school (courtesy of RW)


Thomas Hardy’s house in Upper Bockhampton, now in the care of the National Trust


The interior of the cottage, with Jemima his mother’s chair and his father’s violins


At the back of the cottage, Hardy’s Egdon Heath – location for much of the action in Return of the Native


Jemima’s parents cottage in Melbury Osmond


As a young architect, Hardy travelled to the remote church of St Juliot, Boscastle


Here, at the Rectory (now a B&B), he met Emma and fell in love. He married her more than a decade later


Hardy was responsible for supervising a major restoration of the church

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The house in which Hardy lived briefly in Swanage, best observed from Sentry Road

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Their first home together was on the banks of the Stour, at Sturminster Newton

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The mill on the river which featured in his poetry


Max Gate in Dorchester, designed by TH and built by his father, where he lived for over forty years – first with Emma and later with Florence, his second wife. Now in the care of the National Trust (photo courtesy of RW)

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The Hardy’s reconstructed sitting room – all of the original furniture & fittings having been sold off after his death


Details of Emma’s upstairs accommodation


The contents of Hardy’s study – removed from Max Gate, on his instruction, and relocated to the town museum after his death (photo courtesy of RW)


Thomas Hardy’s grave in Stinsford churchyard – his heart is buried here whilst his ashes rest in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey. He lies in the company of both Emma & Florence


Part 2 will feature the settings for most of his major works…


No Holds Barred


Barred Warbler, Gramborough Hill, 17th September 2014 

You’re lucky to get good views of Barred Warbler. Usually all you get are fleeting views of a variety of body-parts, as this scarce eastern autumn migrant creeps through the brambles. The bird today at Gramborough Hill was something of an exception. If it hadn’t have been for the leaden grey skies and persistent gentle misting sea fret, the views would have been pretty exceptional! A typically plain looking juvenile bird which did show some pale feather fringing to the coverts, tertials and primaries and was quite strongly barred on the under-tail with a marked two-tone pink and grey bill. It’s been years since I saw one as well as this.

Some more photos of this obliging bird:

Now this is the sort of view that would typically be classed as ‘showing well’


But this is more like it..

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Finally, a nice shot of the under tail barring


Another day at the ‘office’


Yellow-browed Warbler, Salthouse, 15th September 2014

Monday is ‘duty day’ at Cley NWT and there was plenty to keep us entertained today. Up to six juvenile Curlew Sandpipers, three Common Sandpipers, Whinchat, lots of Wheatear, a nice flock of Pintail, a rather showy Cetti’s Warbler, 3 Hobby, a couple of Water Rail and, after ‘work’, a superb Yellow-browed Warbler – just up the road, at Salthouse.

One of three Common Sandpipers on Pat’s Pool


There were over a dozen Wheatear on the fields along Beach Road


This little chap nearly sat on my boot!


To finish with, a few more pics of that delightful long-distant migrant, which breeds east of the Ural mountains and should be wintering in South East Asia – Yellow-browed Warbler




RBF.. a nice welcome home


Red-breasted Flycatcher, East Runton, 14th September 2014

Having spent most of last week in Peterborough I was relieved to find, on our return this afternoon, that there were still a few drift migrants around in Norfolk. There also appeared to be a few things just arriving, including a Red-breasted Flycatcher, just down the road from us, at East Runton. I turned up at the spot and, unusually for me just lately, the bird was ‘on show’. Probably a young bird, lacking any trace of red in it’s throat – nice to see all the same.

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Migrants arrive in Norfolk


Wryneck, East Bank – Cley NWT, 5th September 2014

Encouraged by recent reports from Blakeney Point, I decided to spend yesterday morning doing the walk. Early Wheatear activity around The Marrams gave reason to be optimistic but by the time I’d reached Halfway House I was beginning to worry. There was a small group of Whinchat, including a very pale individual, at The Hood and four Redstart, including a male, at Long Hills. On the Point itself there were single Pied & Spotted Flycatchers, Reed, Garden and Willow Warblers more Whinchat and a couple of Chiffchaff  – though, sadly, nothing more exciting. Fortunately for me the Wryneck on East Bank, Cley NWT was still present in the afternoon.

Several Whinchat were at The Hood, including this rather pale looking adult


Male Redstart – one of a total of five


Willow warbler


Spotted Flycatcher at the Plantation


Pied Flycatcher


Meanwhile – back at Cley, a rather obliging Wryneck on the path at East Bank.


ECT etc.


Eastern Common Tern (possible), Arnold’s Marsh, Cley NWT, 29th August 2014

Thanks to Steve and Richard at Cley I can now confirm that my possible possible is indeed a definite possible!

There’s been an odd Tern knocking about along the North Norfolk coast recently – thought to be a Common Tern of the race longipennis or Eastern Common Tern – ECT for short. It’s been regularly seen in the high-tide roost at Scolt Head island and previously but briefly at Cley.

Last Friday afternoon I went looking for a reported Black Tern on Arnold’s Marsh, Cley NWT. There were plenty of Sandwich Tern in the roost, with a few Common Tern but the Black Tern, I was informed by the assembled small group of birders, had just flown back out to sea. As I scanned the flock I became aware of a rather odd looking bird roosting on a small spit in the middle of the marsh. I was sufficiently intrigued by it to attempt to take a couple of digipics. The bird in question was being touted as a probable Arctic Tern but to my eye, although it did look short legged, it was too dark in it’s upper parts and the breast looked rather smokey – contrasting with it’s white cheeks and throat. The group dispersed and I decided to get a better look from the shingle ridge. I quickly relocated the bird but this time it was mostly side on and the detail of the breast was obscured. However, the all dark cap – lacking any white forehead, mid grey upper parts, all white tail stopping short of the primaries and – most intriguingly, an all black bill and dark legs were clearly visible. I managed a few grab shots before the bird took to the air and departed over the ridge to the sea. As it did so, however, it showed a clean upper wing with no signs of the characteristic primary wedge of regular Common Tern. Certain that it wasn’t an Arctic, I returned home without a new Tern tick for the year – oh well!

Over the weekend Steve Gantlett posted pictures of the possible ECT at Scolt Head on his blog and I became immediately suspicious that it was one and the same bird. I sent Steve and Richard Millington copies of my photos and I’m pleased to report that they quickly confirmed the id – my possible possible has become a definite possible!

More digipics showing, in the first shot (the bird just to the left of the samphire) the smokey breast contrasting with white cheeks and throat


and in the second, the plain mid-grey upper wing, lacking the usual primary wedge


Just got to wait now until they decide to split it!