Naturewatch in St Nicholas Churchyard Kenilworth

Last Sunday St Nicholas Church Kenilworth held a ‘Naturewatch’ in the churchyard.

The church is close to the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey and Abbey Fields, which feature in my book Paranormal Warwickshire. The Naturewatch took us on a walk around the churchyard identifying a variety of beautiful and curious things – flowers, trees, gravestones, herb garden, secret steps, Celtic cross, abbey ruins, fallen wall and old tree which have become wildlife havens. This churchyard has long been one of my favourite places, and yet I learned many new things. An enchanting and fascinating churchyard hunt.

Follow the link in the menu to sign up for my mailing list.

The Joy of English Woodlands

The Spinney, Warwick

At this time of year in England, there is something healing about walking in the woodlands. I always feel that some of the loveliest flowers of all are cow parsley and bluebells.

I am also lucky enough to be a member of Songlines, a local community choir, and as the pandemic lockdown rules have been eased, we have been singing in Foundry Wood, Leamington Spa.

There are few things more beautiful than singing in a clearing in the middle of a woodland rich with fresh spring greenery. Of course, the birds do sometimes compete with us – not to mention the sound of the trains going past on the nearby railway line! Best of all is when a friendly and curious robin redbreast alights in the middle of our circle.

Perhaps I might capture a picture of him to include in a future post!

Book Review: ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ by Delia Owens

Today I share my review of this enchanting novel by nature writer Delia Owens.

Where the Crawdads Sing‘ by Delia Owens is set in the swampland of the North Carolina coast. Kya, the main protagonist, is abandoned by her family members one by one until, at the age of seven in the year 1952, she is left all alone, continuing to live in the family’s “swamp shack ” on the edge of the lagoon. Kya fends for herself, navigating the lagoons and waterways of the wetlands by boat, and living independently into her adulthood, gaining her reputation among the people of nearby Barkley Cove as “the marsh girl”.

I found the descriptions of the wetlands around Kya’s lagoon utterly compelling. Delicate, exquisite, and using the most fluid, inspired, original use of vocabulary, Owens weaves pictures of a breathtakingly beautiful and remote region. I found myself longing to visit those wetlands.

Delia Owens herself is a nature writer, and a wildlife scientist who formerly lived and worked in a camp in Africa for several years. This is her first novel, and it is astonishingly beautiful.

As Kya’s story progresses in 1952, another story runs alongside it in a different time-frame, in 1969-70, when the adult Kya finds herself accused of murder. Although the plot is interesting, I longed to return to the description of Kya’s life as a child fending for herself in the wetlands, which has a spiritual, dreamlike quality.

I think I love this book so much because of the appeal and fascination of the idea of “the wild child.” I have always loved stories which centre upon this theme. High among my childhood favourites, the stories of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren held my imagination. Pippi is a wild child, and she was my heroine. I was enthralled by the idea of a child who finds herself living an independent life utterly free of the constraints that adults impose upon children. Reading these books as adults, we may read into that situation all the judgements of our social conditioning; yet, in the world of fiction, this trope is powerful and archetypal.

The story goes on to tell of the older Kya’s relationships with two young men, one of whom is found dead in the mud beneath the local fire-tower, and the progress of the murder trial in which Kya is the Defendant. I will say no more about the plot for fear of spoilers bur suffice it to say that very close to the end there is an amazing twist.

A highly recommended book.

subscribe SC Skillman mailing list
subscribe here to the SC Skillman mailing list

Perfect Cottage Retreat in the Surrey Hills

Hello – I write on the first day of the relaxation of the lockdown here in the UK and we have travelled from Warwick in the Midlands to the lovely Surrey Hills, close to Leith Hill Tower with its wonderful views.

 

This early 18th century cottage was originally a gamekeeper’s cottage and is hidden amongst dense woodland down steep, narrow winding lanes and is like a storybook dwelling. It stands beside a beautiful sparkling pond which often attracts swans, geese and ducks and other wildlife.

It is so peaceful here, with a sense of stillness and tranquility, a gentle subdued light lending a dreamlike quality to the scene as we move towards the end of the day.

Only the delicious sounds of a bubbling brook, an enchanting variety of birdsong, buzzing insects and the numerous calls of other wildlife can be heard. The cool breeze and the receding golden glow of the sun highlights the long shadows across the grass. This is indeed the perfect place for a retreat, in the heart of nature.

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 28: Queensland, Australia: from University Campus to Botanic Gardens and Iconic Lookout: Brisbane Highlights

This is the twenty-eighth and final post in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, as experienced during my November 2019 visit.

Map of Australia and New Zealand

In my last post I wrote about our final visit in New Zealand: Auckland Botanic Gardens. Whilst there we enjoyed the outstanding Sculptures in the Gardens exhibition which continues to showcase and celebrate New Zealand sculptors and artists, through to March 2020..

After flying from Auckland to Brisbane, we were to catch up on some of Brisbane’s highlights in the closing days of our visit.

Promotional websites for Brisbane will point up a number of places to visitors as the “jewels in the city’s crown” but I think the University of Queensland campus certainly deserves to be one of them. I worked there in the School of External Studies, during the time I lived in Brisbane during the 1980s. Much has changed since then but I still enjoyed walking once more through the cloisters of the Great Court, and admiring the wonderful landscaping and of course the magnificent poincianna tree with profuse blossoms, and fragrant frangipani trees which you may see here. Among many other outstanding features, the campus also has a stunning art gallery.

Out last two visits in Brisbane were to the Look-Out and the Botanic Gardens at Mount Coot-tha.

The Lookout is one of Brisbane’s most popular tourist destinations, offering almost 360 degree views. I’ve been there many times in the past, and often a glorious blue sky and clear atmosphere makes this a joyful experience for visitors. However, on this occasion, at the summit the heat was fierce, and the smoke from bushfires was very much in evidence, filling the Brisbane skies.

For me this was a nostalgic, poignant visit, though it has always given me pleasure just to be there and do some tourist-watching! The views from this lookout must be the most popular place in Brisbane as a backdrop for photo opportunities, and at the height of the holiday season, myriads of holiday-makers from all around the world enjoy posing in happy and often artfully-arranged groups.

Our final visit was to Mount Coot-tha Botanic Gardens. These gardens, too, I have loved and often wandered around in the past; today, sadly, the temperatures and humidity were so high, we were unable to tour the gardens as there is much uphill walking, and again a lovely lookout at the highest point of the gardens.

Instead we did the Rainforest Trail: always a blessed relief and an excellent option in times of fierce heat and humidity!

I was also a pleasure afterwards to enter the air-conditioned atmosphere of the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium. The day of our visit the Planetarium was offering as its midday show, “Cosmic Collisions” narrated by Robert Redford. I’ve been to the planetarium show too in the past and greatly enjoyed it.

It was a pleasure to return once more to Brisbane and to the many familiar haunts that I remembered from the four and a half years I spent living there in the 1980s. Inevitably there have been tremendous changes, and yet these simply serve to highlight and set in sharp relief those elements which endure, and arouse a sense of recognition, bringing again a sense of deep connection.

These can arise at unexpected moments, sometimes the subtropical forest of a mountain lookout, or a kookaburra sitting on a branch in front of the panorama of the Samford Valley; at other times the glimpse of a gracious colonial Queenslander with its iron lace balustrades; or the feeling of walking through spacious galleries and gazing at the water features of the State Library of Queensland or the Gallery of Modern Art, or the lovely landscaping of the South Bank Parklands.

Perhaps I may best end by highlighting an excellent presentation of the history of the city, in the Museum of Brisbane to be found in the City Hall in King George Square.

There, aboriginal people speak on video. They represent the ancestral owners of all the land upon which Brisbane is built.

“We believe the land respects us if we respect the land.”

Another said, very gently, of the great city that has risen up on this land: “We wish it wasn’t here. But times change.”

I thought of the corroboree spaces, the campsites, the burial grounds and other places of aboriginal life along the Brisbane river in the past. These were all vividly depicted on a timeline map of the Brisbane river, to be found on display in the museum.

“We believe the land respects us if we respect the land”.

Their words, and the feeling behind them made me feel sad. And yet, I reflected, if the feelings of the aboriginal people had been respected, and their land not taken from them and occupied…. I would never be here myself.

SC Skillman, psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction. My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire, will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020 and is available to pre-order now either online, or from the publisher’s website, or from your local bookshop.

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 20: North Island, New Zealand: The Magic of Millions of Glowworms in the Caves at Waitomo

This is the twentieth in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, as experienced during my November 2019 visit. Today is the fourth of my posts on New Zealand’s North Island.

map of New Zealand
map of New Zealand
Map of Australia and New Zealand

In my last post I wrote about one of New Zealand’s most iconic attractions: the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata where all who visit may believe themselves in the heart of The Shire, that pastoral idyll which JRR Tolkien‘s hobbits call home. For all The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings enthusiasts this was indeed a heartwarming experience, which exceeded all our expectations.

Our next experience was to be another one full of magic: a visit to the Glowworm Caves at Waitomo.

We drove south west from Matamata through the green and picturesque rural landscape so characteristic of the North Island, which reminds me of The Shire. Our destination was the Top 10 Holiday Park in Waitomo Caves Village.

The Top 10 Holiday Park at Waitomo Caves Village

Cabin in the Top 10 Holiday Park at Waitomo Caves Village

Across the road was the visitor information centre, where we booked our tour of the caves.

Visitor information centre at the Waitomo Caves Village

Spellbound Cave Tours departure point

We found our Maori tour leader, Haihei, gregarious, chatty and full of encyclopaedic knowledge about the history, geography and biology of the region, its wildlife, landscape, caves and glowworms. Our group of twelve included visitors from Switzerland, the USA, the UK and Australia.

Map of the Waitomo Caves Region

The landscape of the region is striking: both pretty and rugged, with many hills, steep valleys and rocky outcrops; we were told several sink-holes exist above the caves, and during the course of time hapless animals such as goats and cattle have fallen down these sink-holes into the caves, there to perish.

Here I felt, as before in the North Island, that the landscape appeared ‘designed’ by a landscape gardener; it was so appealing to the eye, moving in ripples and furrows and bumps, hills and valleys. Perhaps this is the consequence of volcanic activity in the past.

We drove for twenty minutes through the Waitomo Caves Region to reach the first cave we were to visit, where we would see stalagmites and stalactites.

walking through Cave 1 at the Waitomo Caves

Once in the cave, our knowledgable guide explained to us that we would find the bones of animals which had fallen through the sink-holes into the cave: and some in the long distant past. We occasionally saw the remains of a cow or a goat which had met this fate; and in one area we saw the ancient bones of a large bird thousands of years old.

the bones of a creature which had perished after falling through a sink-hole into the cave
inside Cave 1 on the Waitomo Caves tour – photo credit Jamie Robinson

Following our visit to Cave 1 we had a tea break in a little hut among the hills, and there the ‘stranger-silence’ was broken and we all started chatting and finding out where each other had come from.

on the way to our tea break after visiting Cave 1

After that we walked down to the river where members of our group were fascinated to see large black eels in the water.

Looking for black eels in the river by the Waitomo Caves

Then we donned white helmets with lights before entering Cave 2 to see the glowworms.

donning our caving helmets before entering the glowworm cave.
entrance to the Waitomo glowworm cave

As we walked through the cave, we learned that glowworms emit their pinpoints of light from the bio-phosphorescence on the tips of their tails: they send down fine silky threads to catch flies and other insects which breed prolifically in the water and rise up to the pinpoints of light to be trapped and eaten.

After we had walked for some distance through the cave we found a boat landing stage; we all boarded the boat which would glide along the underground river in the direction of the waterfall, and where we would see the millions of glowworms.

This was indeed a magical experience; as we glided along in the silence, the water reflected countless pinpoints of light in the roof above us. They shone brighter when our tour leader created a loud booming noise (which he only did briefly, lest you think he was cruel to the glowworms!)

It was amazing to reflect upon the fact that this wondrous fairy-like display was really all for the worms to catch their food. In fact, the caves are a giant 24-7 running buffet for glowworms.

As we glided along we heard the thunder of the waterfall ahead.

Not stars in the sky, but glowworms in the Waitomo Caves

Finally we left the caves, awed by our experience here, and the sense of having briefly entered another world.

leaving the caves

SC Skillman, psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction. My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire, will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020 and is available to pre-order now either online, or from the publisher’s website, or from your local bookshop.

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 15: Brisbane City Botanic Gardens

This is the fifteenth in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, which I visited in November 2019.

Map of Australia and New Zealand

In my last post I wrote about the Dorrigo Rainforest Centre in New South Wales with panoramic views over the pristine rainforest, a glimpse into Gondwana, the remnant of the vast continent which existed before Australia broke off from Antarctica and began to drift north.

City Lookout, Brisbane City Botanic Gardens

After our tour of the New South Wales coastal region, we returned once again to Queensland, and its capital city of Brisbane. Even here, in the midst of a major metropolis, we may find many ways to respect and honour, co-operate and harmonise with the natural world.

Banyan Fig Tree in Brisbane City Botanic Gardens

Today I share some images of the wonderful Brisbane City Botanic Gardens. You may find these gardens inside a big loop of the Brisbane River, opposite the Kangaroo Point cliffs on the south bank.

As the ancient rainforests are our magnificent heritage on this planet, I have been particularly struck by the imagination, expertise, dedication and hard work of landscape architects who within the city environment have recreated lush rainforest areas.

In the gardens you will find the Gardens Club Cafe, which is within the restored Curators Cottage. I can recommend this lovely cafe, situated close to the Rainforest Area, and a perfect place for lunch as you take a break from your stroll around the botanic gardens.

Lunch in the Gardens Club Cafe, Brisbane City Botanic Gardens

You may also walk along the riverside path and enjoy the views of the Brisbane river and the many boats, beyond which rises the city skyline of the south bank.

riverside view from the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens

I also love walking through mangrove swamps.

a walk beside the mangroves at the edge of the river, Brisbane City Botanic Gardens

I was fascinated, too, to learn from an interpretative sign along the walk how vital mangroves are to our ecology: and in particular, their potential to offset some of the negative effects of climate change.

Interpretative sign about ecological significance of mangroves, mangrove river walk, Brisbane City Botanic Gardens

In particular, mangroves are an important wetland type, and perform many functions such as:

protecting – acting as a buffer zone between land and tidal waters, storm surges and wind;

providing – habitat and nursery areas for fish, crabs, prawns and birds;

purification of water – a settling area for nutrients and sediments;

Mangroves are now better recognised for their economic value and potential for climate change mitigation through coastal protection and carbon sequestration and offsetting.

storing – mangrove ecosystems are among the most efficient carbon sinks on earth, storing carbon at a rate six times more than that of an undisturbed Amazon forest.

walking beside the mangroves along the riverside path in Brisbane City Botanic Gardens

I find these facts amazing, moving and inspiring. I love walking among mangrove swamps because of their lush, cool, shady, mysterious atmosphere; but now I know of their immense value for the survival of our planet, I am even more in awe of them.

So when we visit places of renewal and restoration in the natural world, we find that our own relationship with “the green and the blue” encapsulates so much more than simply “a good feeling.”

This heals and uplifts us on an emotional and psychological level; and then we find that the discoveries of science accord with our own inner experience.

Our planet, our mental health, our survival as a species depends upon so many delicate, interconnecting threads: and among these, the precious resources of the natural world: mangroves and rainforests and so much more.

SC Skillman, psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction. My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire, will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020 and is available to pre-order now either online, or from the publisher’s website, or from your local bookshop.

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 14: Dorrigo Rainforest Centre, New South Wales: a Glimpse into Ancient Gondwana

This is the fourteenth in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, which I visited in November 2019.

Map of Australia and New Zealand

In my last post I wrote about the charming small New South Wales town of Bellingen with its colonial-style buildings, its church with beautiful stained glass windows and its precious colony of grey-headed flying foxes on Bellingen Island.

A climb into the mounttins north of Bellingen brings us to Dorrigo Rainforest Centre. Here visitors may take the Skywalk, with panoramic views over the pristine rainforest. This rainforest gives us a glimpse into Gondwana, the remnant of the vast continent which existed before Australia broke off from Antarctica and began to drift north.

Gondwana Rainforest
Gondwana Rainforest

Dorrigo was one of the few national parks open in the region at the time of our visit, because of the tragic bushfires sweeping Australia. The sky was blue and clear as we drove higher, but later became misty and the atmosphere filled with the smell of smoke, carried by the wind from the epicentres of the bushfires. As I write, bushfires are still burning in areas of Australia; and yet we may see signs of hope, in the power of nature to fight back against our interference in the world’s ecosystems.

In the Visitor Centre, regularly updated information was on display about the national park closures in the area, reminding us all of the vulnerability of this, one of our planet’s greatest treasures: the rainforest.

When we took the Skywalk and the Lyrebird walk through the rainforest, interpretative signs provided all sorts of fascinating information about the history, geography, biology and anthropology associated with the rainforest. We heard the high fluting call of the lyrebirds as we walked.

We learned that local Gumbaynggirr aboriginal people describe the rainforest canopy as “a protective blanket over the land.

Farmers clearing land for agriculture have called it “the impenetrable scrub.

Citysiders wanting to escape from the big smoke name it “the ultimate green.”

Conservationists agree the rainforest is “our magnificent heritage.”

Later after lunch in the Visitor Centre café we saw a film which told us that only 20% of the world’s rainforests survive; in regard to climate change we may already be past the tipping point; the rainforests are crucial to the health and quality of life on this planet.

Rainforests are our most precious natural resource.

Although some experts believe we may be ‘past the tipping point’ we must never give up doing all we can to save them.

View of the rainforest from the Dorrigo Rainforest Centre Skywalk, New South Wales
Interpretative sign at Dorrigo Rainforest Centre, New South Wales, showing a map of the Dorrigo National Park and surrounding area
Interpretive sign on the Lyrebird Walk, Dorrigo Rainforest Centre, New South Wales, “Not all Rainforests Are the Same”
A glimpse of ancient Gondwana

SC Skillman, psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction. My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire, will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020 and is available to pre-order now either online, or from the publisher’s website, or from your local bookshop.

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 13: Bellingen, Charming Small Town in New South Wales

This is the thirteenth in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, which I visited in November 2019.

Map of Australia and New Zealand

In my last post I shared some stories about the history of Hat Head National Park and Smoky Cape Lighthouse on the New South Wales coast.

Making our way north from Smoky Cape back to Urunga, and moving inland we find the charming small town of Bellingen.

view from Bellingen main street towards the Bellinger river

Beloved of ‘alternative lifestylers’ as are several towns in New South Wales, this little settlement is full of character and colonial-style buildings.

Sited on the River Bellinger, Bellingen Island is home to a colony of grey-headed flying foxes, and it is a critical habitat for this vulnerable species, as you will see from this picture:

Interpretative sign about Flying Foxes at Bellingen in New South Wales

We strolled up the main street of the town:

Main street, Bellingen, New South Wales

Then we arrived at the local Anglican Church, of St Margaret’s, built in the 1930s.

Inside the church, we met a warm and friendly priest who had originally come from Malta, and enjoyed our chat with him. Whilst in the church we admired some of the striking stained glass windows. My favourites were of St Mary, Mother of the Lord; St Elizabeth, Princess of Hungary; St Cecilia, Patron Saint of Music; and St Margaret of Scotland.

St Margaret’s Anglican Church, Bellingen, New South Wales
Interior, St Margaret’s Church, Bellingen, New South Wales

With thanks to the Bellingen Shire Council for their information about the colony of flying foxes on Bellingen Island.

SC Skillman

psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction

My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire

will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020

and is available to pre-order now from Amazon.

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 7: Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, Gold Coast, Queensland

This is the seventh in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, which I visited in November 2019.

Map of Australia and New Zealand

In our November 2019 visit, we found Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary just a short walk around the corner from our accommodation at Currumbin Sandcastles, Gold Coast. The sanctuary is popular with families and has many attractions for young children including a ‘Meet the Gruffalo‘ area – though we didn’t include that on our day’s itinerary.

There is plenty to fascinate visitors of all ages with a wide variety of birds and animals to delight and amaze, along with an Aboriginal Culture Show. The sanctuary also enchants visitors with its magnificent rainforest landscaping, boardwalks and waterfalls.

The sanctuary is famous for its lorikeet feeding opportunity, and on my past visits here I’ve experienced thousands of these exquisite birds swooping down to feed from the dishes of honey held by visitors. Sadly, on this occasion, we noticed a much smaller number of lorikeets; whatever the reasons for this, we felt sad to see the reduction in numbers.

Like Australia Zoo, the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary offers many opportunities to learn about wildlife, and on this visit we were captivated by the Crocodile Behaviours Show. Here we learned intriguing things about the large crocodile in the enclosure. He had been relocated from his previous environment, where he had proved a danger to local livestock and had finally sealed his fate (not such a bad one) by preying on an expensive prize bull.

We learned that crocodiles have inbuilt ear-plugs and nose-clippers, and can stay immersed and invisible in muddy water using their nostrils as snorkels. So they can drown their vicitims whilst avoiding drowning themselves in the process. Another fascinating fact about crocodiles is that they can live for up to a year without eating anything.

However, that day, the crocodile was clearly in the mood for a snack because the keeper fed him on a chicken dangled from a line on a rod; and he was happy to eat it.

If you visit the Gold Coast, do include a visit to the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary on your itinerary.

SC Skillman

psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction

My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire

will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020

and is available for pre-order now from Amazon.