Monday 16 October 2023

BB 2010 Oops, crash and a motorway Abominable Snowman in Hemel Hempstead January 5th

5th January                                                          Tragedy                                             The Bee Gees    

Now I was really looking forward to visiting Otmoor RSPB Reserve. I had only ever been there once before and that was from a north entrance into the area. This time I was to enter from the south. Otmoor, I had heard said, was famous because the main drains, ditches and meadows had inspired Lewis Caroll's chessboard scene in Alice in Wonderland. Nowadays the scene may be different, as the RSPB have blocked the drains and created a wet grassland paradise for many birds. I wanted to see those birds.

An early morning start with temperatures still well below zero. At least it was very sunny and almost windless. On leaving the house I saw a couple of Red Kites [61] quartering over some nearby trees. Thick ice covered the approach lanes and I sensibly decided to walk along Otmoor Lane, the entrance road to Otmoor RSPB reserve, pushing an unladen bike. I had left my stuff back at Lynn and Richard’s. I later found out that it had been minus sixteen degrees Celsius the night before. Hmmm chilly! I saw a covey of nineteen Red-legged Partridges [62] and a male Kestrel near to the RSPB car park.

I cycled along the reserve pathways and banks, past a feeding station with five more Red Kites that could be seen distantly and a dozen or so Great and Blue Tits that regularly came to partake of the free seed offerings. A super bright yellow male Yellowhammer [63], Reed Buntings and Meadow Pipits [64] were all heard and seen.

At the first screen, which overlooked a large area of reed with frozen pools, I met a Scouse nature lover, Phil Roberts who was trying to get a photo of a Bittern. He asked what birds were around and he admitted that these were new hobbies for him: photography and birdwatching. Phil may not have been the best at either, but he was a lovely conversational sixty-year-old whose company I enjoyed as I explored the rest of the walkways. A Raven [65] was heard and then seen being mobbed by a couple of testy Carrion Crows. Then I met Richard, who had left Lynn back home to come and take part in some scrub removal with other brave volunteers. Over the year it would never cease to amaze me at how wonderfully dedicated and enthusiastic the army of RSPB volunteers were. Here they were in such freezing weather, working away together, sharing that special camaraderie that makes hard work a pleasure. On a small pool of ice-free water around 300 duck milled around or slept: mostly Teal but also Mallard, Shovelor [66], Wigeon and Pochard. Then twelve Snipe flew over, two Moorhens skated over the ice and a group of four Ravens cronked as they flew overhead heading west.

At the second screen, four Cormorants rested on a tree’s branches reasonably close by, including one young bird from the previous year. By now I had started to have very cold fingers and I realised that the cycling gloves so kindly bought for me by the two deputy headteachers of Rigby Hall Special School [assistant heads!], Helen and Linda, were not going to keep my hands warm enough. Memories of reading Catherine Hartley’s amazing autobiography of her becoming the first British woman to walk to the South Pole. Catherine took the wrong sort of gloves and was badly frostbitten. Great read that book by the way with Catherine not what one would expect an Antarctic explorer to be like, as testified by the cigarettes that were found stowed away on the sledge she was pulling! At the last reedy area that could be viewed from a screen, a Bittern [67] spent fifteen minutes walking along the reedbed edge before flying over the same reedbed. A superb, cryptically marked bird; its camouflage lost against the white ice.

The day was going to be incredibly special. As I said before, the BBC was going to make a short film to present on the local news programme that evening. Right on cue, a small green car arrived and out stepped an extremely attractive young lady. She introduced herself and explained that before interviewing me over my future endeavours, she wanted me to cycle along the same icy lane, over a small rise, down to the five bar gate, dismount, negotiate the kissing gate, lift my binoculars and pretend to birdwatch. Now to do that once on the ice was tricky enough but to repeat the process three times would be, I thought, suicidal. Nevertheless, I managed to get through it unscathed, just. Obviously, my cycling balance skills were improving, or so I thought. The interview went fine. Well, I say fine; at least this time I was not in a radio studio with my son, Joshua, heckling behind me. “Don’t be so nervous, Dad,” was the advice given whilst on the Joanne Malin early morning radio show on BBC WM before Christmas 2009. Good advice as I was extremely nervous and not knowing the name of my favourite Cadbury’s Quality Street chocolate did not help. You may remember that Cadbury’s, a proud Birmingham company, was being sold off to new American owners, Kraft and the view at the time was “no thank you.” The BBC radio and TV programmes at that time carried news and discussion platforms on the topic of the sale and so on arriving within the studio I was given a choice of chocolate.

This time though, I was in my element; outside with a extremely pretty interviewer, who had stunning green eyes, just like my wife, sugar to miss, Karen. I was at a superb nature reserve in cold, calm weather and quite a few birds were around, including Red kites, Ravens and two Bitterns.

Eventually happy with my efforts over the introductory cycling and posing, the interview took place at the entrance to the reserve once the interviewer had put me at my ease by chatting about her passion for cooking before recording. 

“Why are you cycling to every RSPB and WWT reserve?” 

A question I was to hear a few times more over the year! Good question. Before leaving, during the planning stage I wrote myself a letter to remind me exactly why I was doing this. It is a bit pompous for which I apologise but here is the original: - 

So, the day which began with a walk in the rain, ended with a bus ride and an idea buzzing around in my head.

A bike ride? Warwick to Coventry and back had seemed far enough but what was I contemplating? A maths teacher at the school, Ernesford Comprehensive in Coventry, where I had just done a day’s supply after cycling there from my then home in Warwick, had talked over coffee of his cycling trip across both North and South America. “The Argentinians are wonderful people.” He had said. “Chile is so beautiful” I can still see him in the small teacher’s sanctuary, talking with such enthusiasm and humility about travels that seemed beyond my capabilities but not beyond my fantasies.

The bus moved on towards Kenilworth.

By the time I got off at the bus, for another evening at my brother Paul’s house, I had decided that I would cycle to each RSPB and WWT nature reserve in Britain, Cornwall to Shetland, Kent to Uists; see as many birds as I could and cycle the whole way, 4,500 miles so I thought at the time.

Right, the decision was made, now for the planning.

A notebook and road atlas of the UK accompanied me on the many train rides to supply teaching assignments and soon became the focus for jottings and thoughts. Equipment, costs, contacts, ideas. The large road atlas became a ‘must have with me’ companion. After a few weeks, the first route was indelibly red inked onto the pages. (West coast of Scotland – get me there; those boat trips look relaxing!). Then, in the middle of March I thought – Why? Why am I going to do this?

I had written equipment lists and costed the trip up. I had contacted the RSPB with the idea in order to start to think of sponsorship in order to raise funds for the charity, as I had the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust and Asthma Association. I had emailed Birdguides to ask about whether anyone had done anything similar. Surprisingly to me, no one had. I had discussed it with my children, Rebecca and Joshua, Mum and Dad, brother Paul and sister, Donna.

Birding friends had listened but were credulous. Why do it?

Why spend 365 days cycling with bins around the British Isles? Why not do the same in Greece or Spain. At least it would be warmer there and the bird species there would include my favourite - vultures! No, it had to be done for charity. It had to be done to show that one did not need to travel by car to see 250 bird species. It had to be done to say thank you to the late Sir Peter Scott, my boyhood hero and it had to be done to show that an ‘old man’ could still dream.

 Well the poor girl must have drawn the short straw to be out at this time in such extremely cold weather but she was genuinely interested.

Now it must have been that I was still lost in the interviewer’s beautiful green eyes, for not ten minutes later after the conclusion to the interview, I had come off my bike, somersaulting over the right side, landing on the ice-covered verge. Along a section of the lane the ice was in hard ridges where previous car tyres had moulded the ice and it was one of these ridges that unbalanced me and ‘over my shoulder I went’. Ouch! The bike was severely damaged and the gear changing mechanism on the handlebar was hanging down disconnected. Five days into the year and now the bike was broken. Tragedy! When the feelings gone (in my leg) and you cannot go on, it’s tragedy. I got up and tried to fix it, the bike's gear system that is but could only get it to give me a couple of gears. Still it was better than just one. My leg was painful but as I had a few layers on at the time I did not check it out too much.

I got on the bike, got back to Richard and Lynn‘s house to collect my things, seeing a Bank Vole under one of their bird seed feeders from their kitchen window. Whilst there I was interviewed over the phone by the Hounslow, Brentford and Twickenham newspaper before setting off for Hemel Hempstead. I gave my most sincere thanks to this wonderful couple for their accommodation and company and set off.

Down the hill from Stanton St John I came around the corner to see a large group of forty-one deer in the field next to the road, which included a strangely coloured, coffee coated doe. A Green Woodpecker [68] flew over, another bird for the year list.   

Onward I went along, thankfully, flat roads and soon I reached Prince’s Risborough and decided that a treat was in order. On finding a small cafĂ© I ordered a meal of lasagne and salad washed down by a sugar laden, frothy hot chocolate. It was dark when I came outside again and there was a new problem to add to the bicycle woes. Snow! Light at first, it soon got heavier; the snow just made the next part of the journey a tad more difficult. I went south for a mile or so, cycling through the falling snow, and then took a left turn. This was the beginning of the Chiltern Hills. With a large, very steep hill to negotiate, I had no choice but to push the bike up the hill to Loosley Row and ride down the other side to Great Missenden, with the snow beginning to cling to me and the bike. An hour plus of snowy downhill thrills [terrors!] combined with hard uphill slogs before almost reaching Chesham, was not helped by the fact that the front light was not as bright as I would have liked. In fact, it was positively dull! Trying to be as ‘Green’ as possible I had seen a wind up, no battery required, cycling front light with cable attachment for a back light. Well the light it gave was poor at best and even then, it would only last for a few minutes.  An ambulance pulled over in front of me and the driver flagged me down. “You’ve got no rear lights!” The fall on the ice earlier in the day must have broken more than the front gear lever; the cable to the back lights was snapped. I tried to twist the wires together but it was no good.

I cycled downhill with a passing motorist offering friendly advice over what I could do in my predicament. “Get some ****in' lights!” Thanks! Just the motivation I needed to peddle through the snow like the clappers.

I reached Chesham safely, after having to back track half a mile or so to search for and retrieve a lost skiing glove and found a Sainsbury’s store still open. No cycling gear for sale, I purchased a RAC torch, some batteries and a box of ladies’ tights. With the torch strapped to the back of the bike, secured by the tights, I had more hills to negotiate and more snow to plough through before getting to the A41 near Berkhamsted. Whilst pushing the bicycle up a steep hill through the deepening snow, I received a phone call from my wife, Karen. It was great to hear from her. I love her voice over the phone and through my mind's eye I could see her beautiful jade green eyes. I miss her so much but a major reason for my doing a Biking Birder adventure is because of our distant love. That may sound crazy but it is complicated and too painful to discuss here. I adore my wife and always will.

After an hour or so the new back torch light had faded to almost nothing. So much for the efficiency of the torch and its batteries! The snow was falling heavily but I was booked into a small bed and breakfast in Hemel Hempstead and I was determined to get there. The fact that there was absolutely no traffic on the motorway-like three carriageway motorway-like road, the A41, did not stop me. Everyone else was sensibly tucked up somewhere warm as I either cycled or pushed through six inches of snow.

I cycled past a Premier Inn and although I was sorely tempted to stay there, I resisted and eventually got to my destination town. Still, I did not know where the B & B was. I had got the address written down on a small piece of paper but I had no detailed map and neither did I have a smartphone nor SATNAV. I did find the local police station and went in to ask for directions. The kind, friendly and gorgeous police ladies behind the desk joined in my laughter at the abominable snowman dripping before them and luckily my Bed and Breakfast was nearby.

Ten thirty, late evening, on the clock when I got into the warmth of a large terraced house, greeted by a lovely German accented old lady, Mrs Peters. She immediately saw the condition I was in and got me a large, hot bowl of mushroom soup with toast, together with two warm mince pies and a chunk of fruit cake!

Nine hours to get from Otmoor to Hemel Hempstead, I felt exhilarated to have made it, despite finding that my left shin had a quite nastily cut and my thighs were both badly bruised from the fall. I bathed, made sure my cut was properly cleaned up with a bandage applied, I was soon sleeping soundly in my small, cosy, warm room, despite the sound of a German-speaking TV channel coming from Mrs Peter’s bedroom next to mine.    

42 miles                                                                                               1566 feet elevation up   1608 feet down                                                                

BB 2010 Oops, crash and a motorway Abominable Snowman in Hemel Hempstead January 5th

5 th January                                                            Tragedy                                              The Bee Gees   ...