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Animals, Family Travel, Greece, Travel, Turtles

Searching for Loggerhead Turtles in Kefalonia

It felt quiet, calm, more like a church than a beach. As we walked along the sand we spotted the wide tracks that looked like a child had pulled a toboggan from the sea up towards the dry mud cliffs.
Up the track was a small pile of sand, like a sandcastle waiting for a child to pat the edges flat.
The clues were all there. 
A female loggerhead turtle had hauled herself up the beach just hours before us, digging a  deep nest for her ping pong shaped eggs.
We all laid down flat on the tracks of sand, listening, as if we could still hear her heartbeat. 
Even the turtle’s tracks enthralled our imagination. We took big gasps of the salty sea air, filling our souls.
A British man, Nigel, in a wide brimmed hat with a friendly dog came walking towards us. He collected long sticks and with great care placed them in a circle around the nest to warn sunbathers that this was a sacred spot, not to be damaged with the pole of an umbrella.
As his dog bounced around the beach he told us that he lives in London but comes to Koroni several times a year to run retreats.

Koroni Beach, Southwest Kefalonia. Greece

He explained the mud cliffs have special healing minerals. He uses the mud in massages for his clients.
We made the mud into a paste, plastered it on our skin and let the sun dry it until it cracked. Then we ran into the sea to wash it off.
It was more exciting than any spa and our skin was really soft.
It was a full moon, perfect for turtles to lay their eggs. But our youngest children were tired and hungry so reluctantly we headed up the mountain to a hillside bar, Sesto, for some food.
The children laid on huge floor cushions and we sat at tables with palm frond sun roofs looking out at the spectacular bay. We ate delicious Greek salad, tatziki, chips cooked with oregano, and stared out at the beautiful sea imagining the turtles out at sea waiting to lay their eggs.
The tracks had left us desperate to see the turtles. The next morning Stuart and Summer, our 4-year-old went down to the beach just after light hoping to see a turtle. It was quiet and there were no signs of any more nests.
They drove to Mounda beach about 20 minutes away. Mounda was a place where there used to be many turtle nests. Perhaps it was too early in the season, but there were no nests evident at all. Maybe the deckchairs and tourists had put the turtles off.
In the local shop where they stopped to buy fresh figs and apricots, the owner’s mother told them we must go to Argostoli Harbour to see Caretta Caretta – the turtles.
The fishermen feed them scraps from their catch so we would almost definitely see them.
Stuart picked us up and we headed straight there.  As we drove up the main road in Argostoli  we spotted a crowd of people gathered by the harbour. Many of them had sky blue T-shirts with WildSense printed on the front and researcher on the back.
We parked and ran as fast as we could in the heat towards the people. The researchers had caught a loggerhead turtle and were carefully shading her in a wooden crate so they could tag her and do health checks for their studies. 
All we could really see was her reddish brown slightly heart shaped shell.
The lead researcher, Chanel, kindly explained to her excited volunteers what they needed to do and each one carefully helped with their precious catch. 
Then they gently lifted the giant turtle out of the crate and lowered her into the water. In a second she disappeared.
Chanel told us there are around 50 resident turtles living in the lagoon. They are the world’s only resident loggerhead turtles. She said that if we rented a pedallo we may see them swimming around.
At the lagoon we jumped into the motorised pedallos and set straight off. 
About ten minutes later we were lucky.
’Stop,’ cried Emil, ‘I can see a turtle.’ 
Just below the surface of the water we saw the shell as it glided by so fast. Then we saw his head pop up from the water like a periscope close to the boat.
We were all desperate to jump in the water and swim with him, but loggerhead turtles are a protected species and we were not allowed to.

Koroni Beach

It was 6pm when we got out of the boats. Paneri Panagiotia, whose family started the business four years, was so enthusiastic about the turtles. She was delighted that we were so excited to see them. As we stood chatting she spotted one gliding towards the harbour wall. She jumped in a boat to drive Stuart closer to him so he could take pictures.
The huge turtle glided right up to the harbour wall. He was one of
the largest resident males. He weaved his huge body effortlessly in and out the seaweed foraging for crabs.
Summer tried to launch herself towards him, she had only just learnt to swim, but she didn’t care. ‘I’m going in to see him,’ she said.
I really wished we both could jump in, but I held her hand tightly. 
Then a second turtle glided straight towards the large male. They banged their flippers on the water, spinning their heads around
as they lunged wide opened mouths at each other trying to bite. They were fighting over a female, explained Paneri.
Watching these turtles, it really felt like we were watching one of life’s miracles. Only 1 in 1,000  baby turtles survive until adulthood. These turtles made it through the perils at sea, the predators like crabs and gulls hoping for a tasty meal, they have avoided the fishing nets and human light pollution, deckchairs and umbrellas. 
We went home feeling deeply happy to have seen these ancient, beautiful turtles.
Wildlife Sense is a sea turtle research & conservation organization based on the beautiful island of Kefalonia, Greece
Argostoli Lagoon Activities for renting pedalos, electric boat or hydro bike

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Roald Dahl Museum
Children's Books, Family Travel, UK Travel

Celebrating the BFG film release

As Roald Dahl fans count down the days until  the UK release of Steven Spielberg’s  film of The BFG, we took our four children to visit the museum dedicated to his work and explore the village he loved so much.Roald Dahl Centenary Story - Great Missenden ,Buckinghamshire, England.

‘Look, the window’s open,’ shouts Emil, our eight-year-old to his three sisters as they all stare up at the old timbered house.

‘That’s the window where the BFG snatched Sophie,’ he says emphasising each word to stress their great importance.

Our two youngest girls stare up at the window nervously, their mouths open slightly like the window itself. They look in equal measure impressed and terrified.

The residents of No 70, High Street, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, must have grown accustomed to the shouts of children and stares of adults, for although it appears people are home, no one looks out.

Roald Dahl Centenary - Great Missenden ,Buckinghamshire, England. The Roald Dahl Museum

Roald Dahl Centenary Story - Great Missenden ,Buckinghamshire, England. The Roald Dahl Museum.

Roald Dahl Centenary Story - Great Missenden ,Buckinghamshire, England. The Preserved Writing Shed at the Roald Dahl Museum.

 

Emil continues to regale our girls with stories of the BFG until his older sister Yasmine takes pity on their vivid imaginations and realising that if he carries on she will be kept awake by their nightmares stops him by kindly saying, ‘It’s only a story, there were never any real giants walking up this high street.’

But, in fact, a big friendly giant did indeed walk along this very street. Roald Dahl himself was an impressive 6ft 5 and this was the village he lived in and loved for the last 36 years of his life.

Along the narrow high street are reminders of places that inspired his great stories. Just past No 70 is the Red Garage Pump that appeared in Danny Champion of the World. It’s no longer a petrol station, although the pumps have been preserved much to the appreciation of my children who pay homage to them and talk about how much they loved the story.

On a former coaching inn opposite is a giant mural of the BFG and in huge words, ‘It is truly swizzfiggingly flushbunkingly gloriumptious.’ It’s impossible not to laugh at the outrageous words on the building and we resolve that we must do the same to the outside of our house. This is the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre.

Through the archway are the gates of Mr Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Well, they would have been the gates. Warner Bros agreed to donate them to the museum, but unfortunately the gates from the 2005 film were simply too large. So they very kindly created replica smaller ones.

The inside of the museum lives up to the expectations from the outside. There are three rooms to explore with exhibits about both his life and his writing process.

All our children love it. Yasmine, 10, loves seeing the inspiration for his ideas and learning how his wonderfully eccentric stories were inspired by his experiences in life.

Emil loves the model of The Nags Head made for Fantastic Mr Fox and the props of the tortoise catcher itself, from the film version of Esio Trot. He loves the hand written manuscript of a speech Dahl gave to American students explaining how he got the idea for the story while visiting his daughter in her apartment and spotting a tortoise on the balcony below.

Sissi and Summer love the dressing up box and glueing bright feathers and gems on pictures with no one minding the mess.

The best bit, they all agree, is Dahl’s writer’s hut, which has had the front wall removed, and now sits behind glass exactly as he left it.

Dahl visited his hut every day for 30 years to sit and write. It’s full of eccentric, magical objects, like a heavy ball made up of wrappings of chocolate bars, his father’s silver paper knife, bits of bone from his much operated on spine and a pot of the yellow Dixon Ticonderoga pencils which he imported from the US and insisted on always using.

The first thing he did when he got to his writers hut around 10am was sharpen six No 2 pencils.

When all of the pencils needed to be sharpened again he knew that he had written for a couple of hours and it was time for lunch.

The old winged armchair has a hole in the back to support a lump in his back, a lasting legacy from a crash landing as an RAF pilot in World War II.

There’s a wooden writing board covered in green billiard cloth balanced across the arms.

‘It’s as if he has just got up after finishing his work,’ says Yasmine who is fascinated by the hut.

After the museum we walk the paths through the fields where red kites  swoop dramatically towards the woods behind his home, Gipsy House.

It is now owned by his granddaughter Sophie Dahl, a writer and model famous in her own right and her husband, musician Jamie Cullum.

We can just make out the windows where Dahl would have climbed up the ladder to his younger daughters’ bedroom window and tapped on the glass and shook the curtains to scare them after telling them early versions of the BFG at bedtime.

We imagine him taking his children for walks in these very woods and delighting them with stories of Fantastic Mr Fox. We don’t need to look for the magic, it’s here, in the stories of the woods.

Our last stop is the Church of St Peter and St Paul where Dahl is buried, according to reports, with a bottle of Burgundy, snooker cues, pencils, and a power saw.

From the stone, there are giant BFG  footprints to a memorial bench. The bench encircling a tree carries the names of Dahl’s five children and three step children. On the stone slabs around the base of the bench is an extract from The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me.

 

‘We have tears in our eyes

As we wave our goodbyes

We so loved being with you, we three.

So please now and then

Come and see us again,

The Giraffe and the Pelly and me.’

As we say our goodbyes, my children shout out, ’We love your stories, thanks for writing them.’

We hope it would have made Dahl smile.

Our favourite Roald Dahl quotes:

“A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” –  The Twits

 

“It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, so long as somebody loves you.” – The Witches

“I am the maker of music, the dreamer of dreams!” – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

“A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.” –  Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

“Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous…” –  Matilda

“Two rights don’t equal a left.” – The BFG

“Somewhere inside all of us is the power to change the world.” – Matilda

“A message to the children who have read this book. When you grow up and have children of your own, do please remember something important. A stodgy parent is no fun at all! What a child wants -and DESERVES- is a parent who is SPARKY!” – Danny the Champion of the World

“There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination. Living there, you’ll be free if you truly wish to be.”

Visit: The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre

81-83 High Street, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, HP16 0AL

 

 

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Birds, Conservation, Family Travel, UK Travel

Halcyon Days

Photo: Stuart Conway

Photo: Stuart Conway

A tantalising glimpse of the electric blue and orange stripe of a kingfisher streaking past me and I was hooked.

I waited all day, tried to spot it again, but nothing.
What is it about kingfishers? Once you’ve seen them, they work their way into your consciousness and you have to see them again. It becomes an obsession. I needed to see these birds.
For years they eluded me, and it definitely wasn’t for want of trying. I’d sit in bird hides all day, brave nettles and brambles along quiet river paths where there were reports that they’d been spotted.
I started to think the only time I’d ever see them was on the side of one of my favourite mugs.
It was my eight-year-old son, Meely (Emil,) who unlocked the key to this mysterious bird for me. We’d been sitting in a hide waiting and watching. It was late afternoon and I could hear the rest of my family in the hill above, playing in the bluebell covered woods. I had the picnic bag and I knew our girls would be getting hungry.
I packed up my binoculars, flask and notepad and assumed Meely would be relieved to be leaving after sitting so still for so long.
But he refused to move, his eyes transfixed on the river.
‘We can’t leave, he’s here I know he’s here,’ he said with absolute certainty and determination.
‘We’re not going to see him, I’m so sorry,’ I said.
I got up and stood by the door ready to lift the heavy wooden latch, but he still wouldn’t come.
‘Lets go,’ I said, ‘I can’t see him.’
‘No, but I can hear him,’ said Meely. ‘He’s been calling, the sound is close we are going to see him.’
And at that moment the beautiful elusive bird, called with his distinctive sharp whistle…. zoomed in to the branch and sat on it, while another hovered, wings fluttering before disappearing down the river.
The king of birds sat on the branch for almost a minute and then disappeared. I felt elated, at last I’d seen this special bird. I hugged Meely tight. He was so proud, he chattered and chattered about every detail, every moment.
 
He taught me the most important lesson, to spot a kingfisher, listen first, then look. Now I hear them regularly. And most of the time I see them too.
And everytime I still feel the same elation and I’m grateful to my boy.
K2

Photos: Stuart Conway

Did you know…
The ancient Greeks called the bird the ‘halcyon.’ They believed the female built her nest on the waves and the Gods calmed the seas while she brooded her eggs around the time of the winter solstice.
Now the phrase, ‘halycon days’ refers to nostalgic summer days even though the original halcyon days were in winter.
Kingfishers build their nests in a burrow 60-90cm deep into a sandy riverbank. 
They bring more than 100 fish everyday to feed their brood.
At 24-25 days old the chicks are usually ready to leave the nest.

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Birds, Family Travel, Photography, UK Travel, Wild Flowers, Wildlife, Woodlands

The Best of the Bluebells

‘When I grow up, I want to be a fairy,’ says our five-year-old Sissi as she balances along the trunk of fallen tree, in a field of bluebells.
The wind creates a ripple of radiant violet blue. The bluebells nod to one another, respectfully bowing to the unseen nature spirits. 
‘Chiff Chaff, chiff chaff, chiff chaff.’ The beautiful olive brown birds with the stripe across their eyes sing joyfully announcing their arrival from the Mediterranean or West Africa.
It’s the best time of year to see the Chiff Chaff, as they dart around the tree canopy, singing loudly to establish a breeding territory. When the trees are in full leaf, they will rarely be seen in the open, choosing to hide in their green leafy world.
So quick, get outside. Enjoy the the bluebells and Chiff Chaffs now, while the sunlight is warming the forest floor, before the leaves cover the forest canopy once again.
Shot with a super telephoto Canon 400mm2.8 & 2x Converter

Shot with a super telephoto Canon 400mm2.8 & 2x Converter

April Bluebells in Sussex

April Bluebells in Sussex

 

HERE ARE SOME OF THE  BEST PLACES TO SEE BLUEBELLS IN THE UK.
Hole Park Gardens, East Sussex
Hole Park, Benenden Road, Rolvenden, Kent, TN17 4JA
Blickling Estate, Norfolk
Blickling, Bickling, Norfolk NR11 6NF 
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River Walking

Splash in the water, scramble over the stones, slide off rocks. We took our family to the River Barle in Somerset for a fantastic adventure.

There’s something magical about a river where salmon choose to lay their eggs. The young salmon then swim out to sea, some as far as Greenland, before returning as adults to lay their own eggs.
‘If I were a salmon, I’d be happy to start my journey in this river,’ says Emil our seven-year-old son. The River Barle in Somerset looks like a grand avenue with ancient trees, their branches hanging over the water, marking its ceremonial route on both sides.

We start our two kilometre circular walk at the Tarr Stepps ‘clapper’ bridge. Seventeen huge stone slabs make a majestic path across the river.

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Perfectly Puffin

Every year thousands of puffins land on a select few islands and we have three short months to see them before they go out to sea again for the rest of the year.
We took our four children to the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland for their annual puffin pilgrimage.
There’s a storm brewing. The sea has turned a menacing petrol blue.
‘I’m sorry we have to cancel,’ says the captain. ‘You won’t enjoy it, there’s 47mph winds predicted. You don’t want to get thrown around on a boat out there.’
But that’s where he was wrong. My husband Stuart and my children don’t care about getting thrown around. They do care, however, about seeing the puffins.
The puffins have been elusive to us this year. We were in Scotland hoping to sail from Anstruther, in Fife, to the Isle Of May to visit them, but bad weather kept cancelling the boat.
Undeterred, we drove to Northumberland to try our luck in the Farne Islands, a seabird nirvana that we’d always intended to visit.
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Fossil Hunting in Watchet, Somerset

The film Jurassic World is creating a box office sensation, breaking records as the highest grossing debut of all time. We decided to take our children on a real Jurassic adventure and we discovered a vivid picture of what it was really like at the time of the dinosaurs.
 ‘Look up at the sky,’ says geologist Dr Andy King.
‘Imagine that all the seagulls you see flying above us are pterodactyls that look a bit like giant winged lizards.
‘If we were standing on this sand 195 million years ago, we would have been standing at the bottom of the sea.’
‘Look up again and imagine you are watching thousands of ammonites swimming around like enormous squids, with their tentacles extending from their shells waiting to catch their prey.’
My oldest children Yasmine, 9, and Emil, 7, are captivated by every word. Their four-year-old  sister Sissi keeps looking up at the sky nervously as if expecting flying dinosaurs to appear at any moment.
‘Now lets go and find some ammonites,’ says Dr King.
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Six Go On A Highland Adventure – Tanera Mòr, Summer Isles, Scotland

‘Let me get this straight. You are taking four children aged 9 years to 18 months on a train, car, boat and then smaller boat to an island where there are no cars, no shops, no TV and no internet,’ said my best friend her voice getting higher and higher as she realised from the look on my face that I was serious.
‘It’s a great idea,’ I said a little too cheerily, as her words seemed to bring home the monumental nature of the task.
The idea was simple, we wanted our children to experience the sense of freedom to explore that we had when we were children.
‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could let them be truly wild. It would be so good for them,’ I said to my husband Stuart, getting carried away with the idea after finishing a chapter from Swallows and Amazons.
I went online searching for a wild adventure and somehow the Summer Isles off the coast of the Highlands in Scotland popped up and I was sold.
Only one of the Summer Isles is inhabited, the beautiful Tanera Mòr. It has just six holiday cottages, a tiny post office and cafe, no cars, no modern life intruding. Bliss.

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