Ian Short


The first 20 minutes

I’ve just read The first 20 minutes by Gretchen Reynolds. It’s a tour of the latest research into the science of exercise, which has advanced significantly over the past ten to twenty years. The author is a journalist, and it’s written in a popular style. There is no reference list, unfortunately. I zipped through it in no time; here are some of the messages that caught my attention (I haven’t checked the research literature on any of them).

A question that health science has studied is what is the relationship between levels of exercise and health benefits. The latest answer seems to be that a minimum of about three hours walking per week has a huge benefit for health. Any exercise beyond that level certainly is beneficial, but the rate of benefit decreases, and eventually hits a maximum at some extreme point. Beyond that exhaustion point you increase your chances of, say, dying from a virulent flu, or damaging your heart in some way. That point, and how it is reached, varies from person to person.

Intesive exercise is better (for health). Jogging beats walking, sprinting beats jogging. Short burst of vigorous exercise can have the same, or more, benefits than far-longer periods of gentler exercise. These short bursts should be, say, ten sets of 60 seconds, with rests in between of a minute or two.

Don’t stretch before exercise. It has been shown in a number of sports that stretching decreases performance. Tight hamstrings can be better for running that flexible hamstrings: they snap back into place faster. Instead just warm up gently – get the appropriate muscles moving.

Flexibility is largely genetic. We can adjust it a bit by streching, yoga, but in fact if we find that we can stretch farther, then often it isn’t because our muscles are more flexible – rather we have learned to tolerate, mentally the discomfort of the stretch.

Exercise burns calories, so exercising should make us lose weight. There are a few reasons why it doesn’t. The underlying reason, it seems, is that our body has a desire to reach a kind of stable weight, whatever that may be. If we use up calories by exercising, then it makes us more hungry to compensate. Also, it makes us more static, lethargic than usual after exercise, so we don’t burn as many calories outside exercise than we otherwise would. A losing battle, as the author calls it! It’s important to stress here that exactly how the body behaves varies from person to person, and is affected by genetics and the environment – and your own choices.

There are limits to how much your body compensates for loss of calories though. Experiments appear to indicate that beyond a certain limit you don’t compensate as much. Gradually, you work your way towards fitness, providing you behave sensibly. Don’t lounge around outside exercise.

If you want to improve in sport, then you have to keep pushing yourself a little further. Keep a log, time yourself, and so on. I can’t be bothered with that.

Resistance training compliments aerobic training. Weight training and similar activities has multiple benefits: longevity, brain, and it helps with running and other aerobic activities. It is particularly important for keeping control of the function of our bodies as we age. Yoga gets a special mention as an effective, diverse form of resistance exercise. And squats are praised too.

There’s a small section on barefoot running. I’ve been doing this recently, now and then. The idea, roughly, is that wearing shoes encourages us to run on our heels, and land heavily, rather than land lightly on our soles. Experimental evidence on harms/benefits is mixed. One problem is that if you remove your shoes you may continue to land heavily on your heels, but without shoes there you could injure yourself. I sometimes run in the evening with no shoes. I find that I tend to run on my soles more than I otherwise would, partly because I’m a bit nervous about landing on something sharp.

Strength training is the best way to avoid injury.

Exercising helps your brain. It helps slow memory loss. It helps rebuild brain cells. It helps reduce stress. Important for children as well as adults.

Movement is important. Don’t sit at your desk writing blogs that nobody reads. Get up, for the sake of your cells. Walk, walk, walk, as we were designed to do. Sitting for long periods can have significant long-term detrimental effects on our health. So stand up instead, and don’t stay still.


Recently a friend lent me GUT – the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ by Giulia Enders. It’s rather good. The hook is that it’s a light-hearted tale of the gut, bacteria, and excrement, written by a young and fresh PhD student whose photo occupies much of the front cover. Her prose – or at least the writing of the person who translated from German to English – is straightforward and upbeat. It’s an easy read – just right for me. So let me tell you what I learned…

Toilet procedure. Apparently, studies have shown that you get more satisfaction by squatting to defecate rather than by sitting on a toilet in the usual way. Your rectum opens up properly when you squat; there’s a kink when you sit on the toilet. Haemorrhoids, constipation, and various other bum related problems are common only in countries where people use the usual toilets. Key message here: don’t strain! Enders points out that you can squat on a toilet by using a stool and bending forward.

Saliva. Saliva contains painkillers and benign bacteria for protecting our teeth and help us digest food. We produce one to two litres per day. But not at night though. So we have bad breath in the morning – less desirable bacteria are free to grow without saliva. That’s why brushing our teeth before bed and when we wake up may be a good idea.

Appendix. There is a well-written, brief description of the parts of the gut and their functions. The small intestine absorbs nutrients from food. The large intestine does the same, but in a different, more leisurely way. It contains numerous helpful bacteria to break down food and absorb minerals and nutrients from the food such as calcium and various fats. The appendix comprises immune cells. It disposes of unhelpful germs that may be mixed in with the bacteria. So the appendix is particularly useful for people in places that are rich in dangerous microbes (certain hot countries).

Fat. Fat can contain twice as much energy per gram as carbohydrate or protein.

Coeliac disease, gluten intolerance and lactose intolerance. Coeliac disease is a condition whereby consuming gluten damages the villi that line the gut wall, inhibiting our ability to take in nutrients. Gluten intolerance doesn’t seem to be properly understood – gluten doesn’t cause damage, but it gives sufferers headaches, fatigue, flatulence, or some other condition. Lactose intolerance isn’t really an intolerance is the bodies inability to fully break down the sugars in milk. The undigested lactose makes its way to the large intestine, where it feeds bacteria causing stomach aches and flatulence. Apparently, in 75% of the world’s population, the ability to digest lactose decreases with age. (Reasonable: as babies we need our mothers’ milk, but not later in life.) So less lactose may help our bodies function.

Enders also writes about fructose malabsorption: basically, the circumstance whereby we eat so much fruit that our bodies can’t digest it, which has various negative consequences. Particular problem these days with added sugars and exotic fruits from across the world. Message: don’t go overboard with fruit.

Faeces. Some nice hand-drawn pictures! You should be aiming for, as she describes it, “like a sausage or snake, smooth and soft”. Also, a good sign if it floats rather than sinks rapidly (sinking indicates undigested nutrients). Important to make sure you drink enough too, to avoid hard faeces. Be grateful I don’t use instagram.

Sea squirt. Interesting sea creature this: it roams about in the ocean until it finds a secure rock, and then once settled it eats its own brain. This begins an interesting chapter on the gut and the brain. How problems with the gut, such as irritable-bowel syndrome, can affect our mood, causing depression and anxiety. Conversely, problems with the brain, notably stress, can affect our ability to digest nutrients. Message here: try to make mealtimes relaxing.

The connection between gut and brain is not understood properly.

Bacteria. We are covered in and contain trillions of the them, and exactly what they all are, and what they all do, is an active area of fascinating research. Each person has a different set of bacteria, although many bacteria are common. A large proportion of our bacteria live in the gut, in the large intestine and rectum, in particular. Exactly how your body functions, how able it is to digest a certain vitamin, for example, depends on the bacteria your gut contains – your “gut flora”.

Babies in the womb have no bacteria, but as soon as they are born they are quickly exposed to very many – beneficial ones from mother (vagina, skin, milk), and probably some harmful ones hanging around from the house or hospital.

Cows. Cows consume grass, bacteria in the cows then use the consumed grass to reproduce, and then they themselves are digested by the cow as a source of protein.

In total we receive 90% of our nutrition from food, and 10% from our internal bacteria.

Yoghurt. This is milk which has been pre-digested by bacteria. We eat the bacteria. How healthy the yoghurt is depends on the bacteria used. It’s easier to digest than milk because much of the lactose has already been broken down into lactic acid and small sugar molecules (making it sour and sweet).

Bacteria are used in other foods too, such as sauerkraut, which is more nutritious than cabbage.

Cholesetrol. There are many fascinating experiments involving bacteria reported in the book. One is about an examination of Maasai warriors some years ago. Their diet consisting almost exclusively of meat and milk, yet they didn’t have high cholesetrol. The answer was that the warriors often ate curdled milk, and this gave them a regular supply of gut bacteria capable of processing the cholesterol, absorbing it, or modifying it, to give the warriors a regular level of cholesterol.

Salmonellae. These bacteria are part of the gut flora of reptiles and tortoises. By excreting, the salmonellae end up in grains (usually grown in Africa) that are then exported to Europe for chicken feed. Chicken lays an egg, and the salmonellae from chicken’s bum ends up on the egg. Salmonellae and other bacteria don’t mind being frozen, they live on, but they are killed by high temperatures. So cooking a chicken or egg gets rid of the bacteria, but rubbing it around on our work surfaces can spread salmonellae – enough of it will make us sick. The author recommends (i) use a plastic chopping board (fewer grooves for bacteria to gather in), (ii) wash anything that comes into contact with meat or raw eggs thoroughly, (iii) cook properly. She also mentions the advantages of buying organic (less reptile shit).

Toxoplasmata. Interesting bacteria, this one. They live in cat guts, but transport themselves from one cat to another via humans. Apparently our percentage chance of being infected is about the same as our age. They are parasites – they live in us but give us nothing in return. In fact, they can harm us; it is suspected that they are the cause of strange behaviour in us, recklessness, depression. Studies of car crash victims found, overall, high levels of toxoplasmata.

Worms. Threadworms multiply like this. If one is inside us, then when we sleep, she wriggles down to our anus and lays some eggs. She wriggles around a bit so that we scratch. We get then eggs on our hand and later when we scratch our nose or lick our fingers they end up in our mouth. Then down the gut to the small intestine where the eggs hatch.

Hygiene. To quote, “the higher the hygiene standards in a country, the higher that nation’s incidence of allergies and autoimmune diseases”. Don’t disinfect! You can limit bacteria sensibly by (i) diluting (washing fruit, say), (ii) drying (think lentils, say), (iii) keeping food at appropriate temperatures. Enders warns that kitchen cloths, and to a lesser extent towels, are typically covered in bacteria. We spread bacteria with them; they don’t really clean things.

Antibiotics. Using these is like dropping a nuclear bomb on bacteria – it wipes loads of them out, good and bad. They have no effect on viruses, which are infections of cells (so are wasted on colds). Better to avoid taking them as they wipe out important gut flora. Enders mentions the importance of buying organic meat, because the organic industry places stricter controls on the use of antibiotics for animals (antiobiotic use in animals can be wasteful – builds up resistant bacteria). She also mentions washing fruit and veg thoroughly in case they have traces of antibiotics on them.

Probiotics. Foods are left, or treated in some way, so that bacteria grow on them in a process called fermentation. The fermented food is preserved – resistant to bad bacteria – because of the acidity of the product (generated by the beneficial bacteria) and the beneficial bacteria themselves. Unfortunately, the range of bacteria in fermented products is much reduced these days (because of industrial processes, economy). Food with beneficial bacteria in is called probiotic. Particularly useful to take probiotic foods or medicines after a dose of antibiotics – our gut bacteria need replenishing!

Prebiotics. These are foods that encourage bacteria in us to grow. The good bacteria must already be in the gut, then we feed them to make them multiply. High dietary fibre foods good for this (vegetables, fruits, wholegrain). Her final message is: make sure we feed the good bacteria in us (with a healthy diet)!

Hobbies at Sandy

On Sunday we took a trip to the RSPB reserve in Sandy (it’s the location of the headquarters of the RSPB). As I collected a ticket for the car (free, as we’re members) a guy in the car next to me complained about the £5 fee because there was nothing to see. Nothing to see! He doesn’t know what to look for. It was raining at first, but the row of lavender by the car park was covered in bees, including several species I didn’t recognise (I only know the common ones). After a while, the sun came out, and there were butterflies and dragonflies aplenty.

The highlight of the day, and of my wildlife-spotting summer, was a family of hobbies, who had just fledged, and who would soon fly off to Africa. Good luck to them. The wardens told us where the hobbies had nested, so we walked round the track, eating blackberries, to look for them. Josie went berserk after a while, and I was carrying her round like a sack of potatoes. I put her down in a lovely spot under an oak tree because I could hear repeated chirping of the screechy kind that you associate with raptors. The others caught up, we sat on a bench, Josie brightened up, and we saw the hobbies in a nearby tree, flying back and forth, catching dragonflies. We watched them for about half an hour then went on our way.


J had another tantrum on the way home “I WANT MONKEY BACKPACK”. I had to steel myself not to crash the car. But we made it, and we’ll return to Sandy, next time by public transport (which is possible, but takes three to four times as long).

Quest for the chalkhill blue

On a windy Sunday afternoon we set off for Sharpenhoe Clappers (pretty close to where we live, north of Luton) in search of some chalkhill blue butterflies. I had a slim hope that we might spot some small blues too, but the wind and the children made me doubt our chances.

Sharpenhoe Clappers is a ridge of chalk land, with some patches of ancient woodland, and meadows with flowers. In particular, horseshoe vetch is found in abundance, the food of the chalkhill blue caterpiller. Sharpenhoe Clappers is, to my mind, a nicer place than the Dunstable Downs, nearby. Far quieter, at least.

We discovered that it was even windier on the ridge than it was down low. No shock there. The children played for a while on a rope swing hanging from a tree. While resting in some grass, we spotted some blue butterflies being blown around in the wind. They kept their wings closed, unsurprisingly. The undersides of their wings looked to E and I like those of the common blue, however, there was a kind of blue glow towards their bodies. Inconclusive. Round the corner, downhill a little, and in the shelter, we found more, with their wings open. Here’s one.


Definitely a chalkhill blue! Plenty of horseshoe vetch about too, although not in this photo. I was so pleased that I agreed to carry Isi back to the car on my shoulders. Not so easy these days.

Main butterfly season is coming to a close now. My favourite sighting of the summer was a dark-green fritillary that Ellie spotted on a car in Aston Clinton. Spotting wildlife is all the more pleasurable when you aren’t looking for it.

Feral – by George Monbiot

This is a wonderful book, beautifully written, about rewilding the United Kingdom. It presents convincing arguments about how allowing the countryside to revert to a wild state will increase biodiversity, and these arguments are interspersed with autobiographical stories from the author that show his passion for the subject, which is infectious.

Monbiot  considers rewilding to be the process of ‘permitting ecological processes to resume’ and of ‘resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way’. In the UK, we just can’t leave nature alone; we either graze it by sheep until there’s very little left, chop it down or burn it. As Monbiot says, ‘It is as if conservationists in the Amazon had decided to protect the cattle ranches, rather than the rainforest.’ This principle resonates with me: I visit the Lake District reasonably regularly and I’m struck by the observation that I see less wildlife in the Lake District than I do in Milton Keynes. Actually, I may well see more wildlife on the M6 than I do in the Lake District.

The author also considers rewilding to involve bringing ourselves closer to nature ‘to escape from ecological boredom’. Again, I relate to this idea. My family is trying to lead a wilder life. Maybe we’ll start by leaving the children in the woods for the night – sounds crazy now, but some interrupted nights I would be up for it.

Rewilding is also about bringing back species: beavers, wolves, lynx, wild boar and so on. That’s the most exciting part! I hadn’t realised that elephants and hippos were once found in the UK. Elephants became extinct around 11,000 years ago, hunted by humans. It’s suggested that many of the features of native trees in the UK evolved through interactions with elephants; for example, the capacity of certain trees to regrow so well when they’ve been mangled (hawthorns come to mind). Monbiot gives lots of examples of how large animals give balance to their environment. He says, ‘In some cases they have changed not only the ecosystem but also the nature of the soil, the behaviour of rivers, the chemistry of the oceans and even the composition of the atmosphere.’

Monbiot lays a lot blame for the poor state of our countryside on sheep. Basically, they munch all the plants to the ground, so there is little room for wildlife, apart from a very  few species. The sheep are supported by massive farm subsidies: we pay to ruin our countryside as part of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which is destroying countryside all over Europe. The UK does worst out of it though; tree cover in the UK is about 12% compared to 35% overall in Europe.

There is also a chapter on rewilding the sea. I’ve often had the following thoughts about the sea. Humans have had significant impact on the natural world on land for hundreds, thousands of years: chopping, burning, building, eating, and so on. But until a few hundred years ago, we couldn’t impact on the sea in nearly the same way. We could fish, build dams on rivers, poor pollution into it, but not nearly on the same scale with which we could damage the land – after all, we can’t easily get to the bottom of oceans, and we can’t easily build on it. However, the situation has changed in recent times as fishing has developed and pollution increased. Now, these days, we are able to massacre the ocean. Our underwater crimes are far more disguised than our land crimes. We can drag trawlers over the sea bed annihilating life for the sake of catching some fish. We wouldn’t do quite the same over a forest. And many of the fish we eat are critically endangered.

Monbiot quotes someone who wrote in 1776 that the arrival of a typical body of herring in the UK ‘divided into distinct columns, of five or six miles in length, and three or four broad; while the water before them curls up, as if forced out of its bed… the whole water seems alive; and is seen so black with them to a great distance, that the number seems inexhaustible’. In Monbiot’s words, the 1776 author observed that ‘these shoals were harried by swarms of dolphins, sharks, fin and sperm whales, in British waters, within sight of the shore. The herring were followed by bluefin and longfin tuna, blue, porbeagle, thresher, mako and occasional great white sharks, as well as innumerable cod, spurdog, tope and smoothhound. On some parts of the seabed the eggs of the herring lay six feet deep.’  It is accounts such as this that make me realise how pitiful our wildlife now is in comparison. The rewilding project aims to reverse this decline.

There are some positive rewilding projects out there. Trees for Life in Scotland are attempting to establish a massive network of forests based around the Caledonian Forest. Ellie and I joined one of their volunteering projects before we had children. There is also the charity Rewilding Britain.



Green Party

My family and I recently joined the Green Party. Our principal reason for doing so was to help promote environmental issues on the political agenda. Policies of the Green Party include phasing out fossil fuels and nuclear power, nationalisation of public services, removal of tuition fees, higher taxes for the wealthy, a higher minimum wage, improve public transport, improve cycle networks, and work towards a zero-carbon sustainable economy. Broadly speaking, their policies are designed to encourage a fairer and more environmentally-sound society.

We support various other environmental groups too.

Friends of the Earth. Campaign on a wide range of environmental issues.

World Land Trust.  Buy up rainforest.

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Campaign to protect birds and other species, mostly in the UK. They own a large number of nature reserves.

Wildlife Trust. Umbrella term for the collection of local Wildlife Trusts that divide up the country. We’re a member of BBOWT –Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust.

Butterfly Conservation. Campaign for butterfly conservation in the UK.

Bumblebee Conservation Trust. Protect bees.

National Trust. Historically, the NT has been very important for the UK because they’ve bought up land that may otherwise have been developed for housing or industry. Sometimes I dislike the way the land is managed, but they are becoming increasingly aware of environmental issues, it seems. A lot of the membership fee goes on preserving old buildings. I like buildings, but I’m more interested in nature; however, we figure we might as well be members as we’d have to pay an equivalent amount of money in car park fees were we to break off.

Next up we’re thinking of joining Rewilding Britain and Greenpeace.


Environmental action

Recently I’ve been musing on the UK referendum vote to leave the EU. The exit campaign used a simple, catchy message, which was highly effective. It went something like, “We pay the EU vast sums  of money to dictate our laws for us and allow immigrants to come here, claim benefits, and take our jobs. Let’s exit the EU and take control of our borders.” They identified a (perceived) problem, and offered a straightforward solution. I’ve been pondering whether the environmental movement, which is strong on identifying problems, should try to match these problems with solutions. In the sense that, say, a bulletin about the likely destruction of an ancient forest by the hosts of a Winter Olympics should be followed by recommendations about how you can prevent the disaster happening.

I tend to write about environmental problems rather than solutions, but here I’ll buck that trend and describe a number of measures that a person living a comfortable life me in the privileged world can take to reduce her or his environmental impact.

Don’t fly. The environmental impact of flying is devastating. Not only do aeroplanes emit copious quantities of carbon dioxide, they also release other greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide. Furthermore, water droplets that result from flights form vapour trails and clouds, which also contribute significantly to global warming. And on top of that, they create a massive amount of noise pollution.

Avoid driving. It’s not just the traffic and fuel consumption that is damaging, also road networks spoil the countryside, and car noise ruins fills our lives with stress. I can hear the M1 from my bedroom at night, and I live a couple of miles away. I think of all the wildlife (outside) that has to live with that constant noise. Cycle instead! Or walk.

Become vegan. The carbon footprint of meat, particularly red meat, is massive. As a rough guide, a kilogram of British hill farm beef or lamb protein produces more greenhouse gas emissions than a passenger flying from London to New York. Free-range farming is the worst offender for carbon dioxide because the animals roam around burning calories, producing methane, and devouring the countryside. The carbon footprint of high-density farming is better, although still high, however, such farming is often inhumane, and we tolerate it only by choosing to ignore it.

Buy organically grown produce. Organically grown produce is managed in an ecologically balanced way to promote sustainability, soil health and biodiversity. It uses less environmentally damaging herbicides and pesticides than other farming methods. Organic production tends to increase yields.

Buy local produce, or grow your own. For fewer transportation miles! And to support your local community in working in the local community (rather than commuting to London, or wherever).

Don’t eat fish. This is covered by becoming vegan, but I thought I’d mention fish separately as so many are critically endangered and yet we eat them anyway. If you do eat fish, then only eat fish approved by the Marine Conservation Society, or even better, fish approved by Greenpeace.

Support and volunteer for environmental charities. Such as, in the UK, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, World Land Trust, Rewilding Britain, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Wildlife Trust, Butterfly Conservation, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, British Dragonfly Society, World Wide Fund for Nature.

Campaign for the environment. Contact your MP about environmental issues. Chain yourself to a nuclear missile.

Switch to a renewable energy supplier. We use Good Energy. You could also try Ecotricity, and there are others too. We  have a ground-source heat pump that supplies us with energy, and we don’t use gas.

Consume less. Less of everything: clothes, plastic packaging, computers, electricity, water.

Buy second hand. And donate to charity shops: don’t hoard things you no longer use.

Insulate your house. Loft insulation, double glazing, cavity wall insulation, led light bulbs, thick curtains, draft excluders, floor insulation, and so on.

Holiday closer to home. For us that means Bletchley, Luton  or Northampton.

An omission from this list is having children. I’ll steer away from this issue because it’s not so straightforward. Problems of climate change are exasperated by increasing populations, but it’s unclear to me how individuals should respond to this – it depends on their circumstances. Certainly adopting children is a thoroughly admirable thing to do, and I have great respect for those who have the generosity to do it!



Île de Ré

We’ve just returned from the most wonderful holiday in Ile de Re, which is an island off the coast of France, by La Rochelle. The island has a large working salt marsh, and there are cycle paths that go through the marsh and all over the island. We spent our days cycling, having picnics, and playing on the beach and in the sea.

Ile de Re is rich in birdlife: half of Europe’s bird species are found there (many at only certain times of year, migrating). What struck me was how certain species that are rare in the UK are common in Ile de Re. First and foremost, turtle doves were all over the place (they have suffered massive declines in the UK). Also, serins were in abundance. Quite possibly these two species are common throughout southern France,  I don’t know.

We weren’t particularly looking out for wildlife, but cycling around you inevitably see a lot. There were huge numbers of linnets, and many redstarts. On the marsh we saw black-winged stilts. They were my favourites – they looked almost exotic when they flew; E said they reminded her of dragonflies. We also saw avocets – lovely – and marsh harriers swooping about over the marsh. There were black kites around too.

The most exciting spectacle was of a kestrel plunging  into the grass to grab a yellow wagtail chick. The rest of the wagtail family, about four of them, were scattered around the scene, a few metres away. The parents were cheeping wildly and the other young ones were keeping quiet. I’ve never seen so many kestrels as I did in Ile de Re.

The island is also great for butterflies. We didn’t know what many of them were – many weren’t UK species – but I was pleased to see clouded yellows, which are beautiful. I also saw (what I think was) a short-eared owl one evening (not a butterfly). We used to see them in Parkgate by the Dee Estuary, but never so close up.

Despite all this, Ile de Re is not a wild place; it’s built up, with lots of small towns, and houses sprinkled around the peninsula. The conservationists say they have to battle with developers, the usual problem.

Here I am carrying Josi back from the beach.


Quest for the Duke of Burgundy

On Sunday we took a trip to the Dunstable Downs, hoping to spot a Duke of Burgundy butterfly. We parked at Bison Hill near Whipsnade zoo and walked slowly north along the ridge. The usual suspects were around, such as small tortoiseshells, including the one below. A silver-washed fritillary (I think) sailed past us. No duke of burgundys.


We arrived at the visitor centre before too long. The large grassy patch around it was heaving with picnicers and kite flyers. I asked a National Trust girl where the duke of burgundys are found and she directed us to a lower part of the downs.

Ela and Isi raced down the hill and Josi and toddled behind them, past young couples lying together, looking at their phones. We had to stop because Josi had a wiggly worm in her shoe. I emptied it out – it was a stone. Two seconds later she had another one. Fearing a plague of wiggly worms, I put Josi on my shoulders and set off after the other two, who were at the bottom, among much richer vegetation, which was teaming with butterflies.

A little blue butterfly fizzed past me, which may have been a silver-studded blue; I wasn’t in a position to give chase. There were loads of common blues, including the female below.


We made our way slowly back to Bison Hill in the sunshine, but the girls were getting hot and tired, and angry. Luckily Ela was there with patience, as otherwise I may have left them behind in the cowslip to be devoured by butterflies.

We settled down under a couple of oak trees for a rest in the shade. Nearby was the prime duke of burgundy spot, so I went off in search of them. I knew I had the right place because  a guy with a huge camera was lurking about. I browsed around for a couple of minutes and then stumbled upon one, which I filmed with my camera. Here’s a still.


I returned to the others and then Ellie went off to search. She went straight to huge-camera guy and he showed her the one he was photographing.

All in all it was a lovely day; however, I won’t return to the Dunstable Downs in a hurry. Apparently its an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – I can’t see it myself – more like an area of Outstanding Noise. It’s surrounded by roads and there’s an airfield next to it in constant use (gliders). The place is heaving with people (on a hot spring day).

Here’s Isi showing off a daisy she found.


Marston Vale Country Park

For my 37th birthday, I took I and J to Marston Vale Country Park. J was ill – lots of discharge from eyes and nose – but it didn’t seem to affect her. We caught the train from Worburn Sands to Stewartby.


We walked to Stewartby Lake and had lunch.


Willow warblers sang in the trees around us. A cuckoo could be heard in the distance. Common terns were feeding each other on the lake.


This female holly blue landed close by. She opened her wings briefly for a photo.


I and J gathered twigs to build a nest for bugs, so they told me. We left the lake and made for the nature reserve. J slept in the pram while we walked round it – until I woke her up by dropping my jumper on her after failing to use it as a sun screen over the pram.

The girls then played in the park. Here’s I, high up. I helped her get there. She clung to the log and told other children playing on the log climbing frame that her daddy had put her there.


Eventually we made for Milbrook station, to catch the 5 o’clock train. The girls regarded the bench carefully before climbing on.


The three of us sat together on the bench in the sun listening to the birds, remembering other times when we had sat on the bench in the freezing cold. It had been the most wonderful of birthday trips.



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