Christmas in Venice


…a long-promised (and once-postponed) visit to Venice – and coinciding with Christmas 🙂

Arrival at midnight was something of an adventure as we were staying on the island of Murano. The whole business of reaching the island after the daily vaporetto service had shut down for the night (indeed perhaps for the Christmas season?!) had seemed a rather daunting challenge while sitting on the coach from Treviso Airport, but at that time of night, in freezing temperatures, it felt like we’d landed on our own surreal magic carpet when we stepped straight on board a private water taxi. Under the circumstances the 70 Euro fare seemed like a complete bargain, and there was no denying it was a beautiful boat with gorgeously varnished wood and royally plush seating in the deliciously warm cabin:

The surreal theme continued as we coasted along dark canals past even darker alleys:

By this time, daughter had the heebie-jeebies, and as we eventually blasted out past gaunt posts into the black lagoon she was far from happy…
It was therefore with a sense of considerable relief all round that we not only arrived at the island of Murano, but were dropped off right outside our hotel by our incredibly helpful taxi-driver:

Weirdness continued as we walked to the hotel entrance (and I had to remind myself that Murano was the glass-making island):

Unreality continued as were led to our room down the most astonishing corridor I have ever experienced, the ceiling higher than some cathedrals while the decor seemed more Morocco than Murano:

And so exhausted to bed, after first marvelling at the beauty of our room.

Next morning the external architecture of the hotel resumed the surreal theme by apparently placing us in ‘The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street’ by di Chiciro:

Nature, however, re-asserted normality when we were greeted at the canal-side by a curious black-necked grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) in winter plumage:

The journey across the lagoon to Venice was an utterly different experience from the previous night’s voyage, with the distant snow-covered Alps, the brilliant sunshine, turquoise lagoon and the clanking of the vaporetto engines (which sound as though they can only last about two weeks a piece, given the treatment they are subjected to):

Meanwhile the sleek private water taxis slid by on their way to Murano:

As for Venice itself… Well, ‘extraordinary’ doesn’t do it justice. The bright winter sun just seemed to make all the colours glow, aided by the reflections from the turquoise water:

The water taxis purr past while the vaporettos (in the background) thrash and grind their way round the canals:

Meanwhile the gondolas dance and weave like slow ballerinas:

Some of them really are quite sumptuous:

…and some have added biodiversity richness:

Indeed the grebes, egrets, yellow legged gulls, black headed gulls and pigeons all seem to take the hustle and bustle of the city in their stride:

This egret looked like it was wading in black Japanese lacquer:

San Marco square is indeed suitably impressive:

…but it’s the view from the waterfront there, over the gondolas out towards the Venetian island cemetery, that is one of the iconic images of Venice:

Sunset brings further transformation:

Heading from the square back to the peace and quiet of Murano gives yet another perspective, this time from the water:

Next day was spent exploring the maze of callas or alleyways which pass for ‘main streets’ in Venice:

Evening brought us back to San Marco and our favourite ‘hot chocolate’ cafe, as clouds began to gather and threaten a damp day ahead:

On the way back to our vaporetto stop we stumbled across “the most beautiful bookshop in the world”. Definitely the most remarkable bookshop I’ve ever visited. And just to emphasise that you are in Venice, it even has a gondola full of books:

…and I have to say I found the most amazing collection of material; even bought a rare but incredibly useful report about wetlands (daughter eye-rolling at this point)…

Next day was a shopping and museum day because the threatened drizzle had arrived. Murano looked even more like a place of the waters beneath the drizzle:

The Venice Natural History Museum was a delight, with some beautifully displayed material. Here’s a trilobite, with its tracks still preserved:

…and a delicate dragonfly from 350 million years ago, preserved in fine silt:

The exit atrium is dominated by this beautifully displayed blue whale skeleton (is this where London’s Natural History Museum got the idea from?):

The view from the Rialto bridge emphasized the thickening clouds:

…and by evening the rain was coming down fairly steadily, so we repaired to San Marco and our ‘hot chocolate cafe’ again:

The vaporetto back to Murano took on an eerie aspect when we passed a superyacht lit up like something from outer space:

…then being apparently stalked by a boat with an eerie blue glow, the eerieness in no way dispelled when it drifted close and waited, apparently empty as an abandoned spaceship, as we disgorged passengers at various stops without ever using those stops itself:

It drifted off mysteriously into the night as we headed into the darkness of the lagoon towards Murano, from where the Phare of Murano (lighthouse) was sending out beams which pierced the increasingly heavy squalls of rain:

For our final half-day we visited the Museum of Glass on Murano. I wasn’t expecting anything too thrilling but was keen to know why Murano had ended up as a glass-making centre. I emerged an hour later, none the wiser but deeply impressed by some of the glassware on display, and the videos of techniques are amazing. All this is done quite literally by brute-force artistry (glass is heavy and it’s necessary to work fast!). No clever machines involved at all, just human sweat and skill:

The less said about the journey home the better. Suffice it to say that this is the landscape approaching Beauvais (Paris) Airport, rather than Stansted (and a day later than booked), from which we had to make our own way back to Stansted (via crowded coach, crowded Eurostar, tube and train). Thanks, Ryanair…

However, Venice…? Quite extraordinary…!
Happy New Year 🙂

The silence of snow – Myland Landscapes 10th December 2017

Sooooo… snow…
Nothing at 9 a.m. then a blizzard by 10 a.m.
Took myself off to the Myland fields armed with camera, folding stool (for the camera bag to sit on, not me) and large golfing umbrella (to keep the snow off the camera). Do click on the images to see them full size…

Such magical silence…

And so the path home through the edge of the woods as the snow began to ease off…

Merry Christmas..!!

Myland sunrise, Colchester: 23rd November 2017

Having missed a couple of obviously-spectacular sunrises (and even more spectacular sunsets) during the past week, I was out in the pre-dawn darkness on the bike to catch the dawn either across the fields of Myland or along the Wivenhoe Trail. The fact that it was already drizzling as I left the house persuaded me that the nearby fields were the sensible option. Arriving at one of my favourite field corners, things didn’t look promising though at least it had stopped drizzling:

While the first glow of dawn was creeping up the eastern horizon, the sky to the west looked positively grim and menacing:

I stood around waiting for something interesting to happen but things just stayed stubbornly grey and gloomy as the dawn glow vanishing behind a thick bank of cloud. I was on the verge of giving up and getting on the bike when a glance behind, to the west, revealed large swathes of clear sky sweeping towards us:

This offered some promise, so I decided to wait and see what would happen once this more broken cloud had passed overhead towards the rising sun. A strange pink glow made me turn back to the west and I was astonished to see a vast bank of salmon-pink cloud dominating the western horizon and heading rapidly in our direction (that is, the direction of me and the bike, which was now glowing as though it had been oven heated):

Everything began to take on a lovely pink glow as the cloudbank raced towards us even though, very curiously, the eastern sky was still stubbornly slate grey:

Suddenly, the sun burst through the grey blankets of cloud and everything took on a limpid golden hue while great coils of cloud soared overhead:

Looking back to the west, the salmon-pink cloud was hardening into a rather more ominous cumulonimbus capillatus anvil with a wet-looking darkness beneath:

Somehow, the sun managed to vanish again, and a glance back to the west revealed (not quite in the blink of an eye but astonishingly quickly) that a huge wall of cloud, heavy with rain, was heading straight for us:

…and so the expedition ended as it began, cycling through grey drizzle. By the time I arrived at the university later that morning, the sky was clear and blue. Such is the nature of a passing weather-front.

And just to round things off, today was the Minories Christmas Market in Colchester, where once again I had a stall:

Many thanks to everyone at the Minories, and my great (family) team… 🙂
…and do visit my Etsy store if you were not able to enjoy the Christmas Market in person 🙂

Colours of Klimt, Surrealism and Sunsets

Days of grey drizzly autumn rains….. but amidst these there has been a whole array of other skies which I’ve picked up while travelling, yet again, to Cumbria, then on the usual run between Colchester and London’s Royal Docks, although one or two scenes have been far from usual.

Working late to prepare material for my talk in Cumbria, the moonlit campus which confronted me as I finally emerged from our sustainability lab resembled a rather other-worldly scene from a science fiction story:

Much of the run to Cumbria on Virgin’s West Coast line the next day was grey drizzle, but a pale watery sun appeared somewhere north of Rugby:

As we passed beneath bands of nimbostratus this watery sun would vanish, to reappear once again behind its high veil of altostratus, but always edging closer to the horizon:

It finally slid from beneath a thick bank of nimbostratus just in time to send out a blaze of gold before sinking below the horizon over Preston:

The return journey was all in darkness (and rain) so nothing to report there, but the following morning brought an extraordinary layer of luminous pillow-like stratocumulus – something I’ve seen only a few times while journeying back and forth, and reminding me very much of various paintings by Edward Reginald Frampton:

Approaching the Lone Oak at Shenfield, autumn ploughing was obvious:

By the time I reached our Docklands Campus the sky was clearing and the sunlit repetition of residence blocks, with Canary Wharf in the distance, was somehow deeply pleasing:

The morning after Guy Fawkes Night saw one of our first frosty foggy mornings:

That, and the next day, were bright but cold:

Alhough things looked pretty grim over Kelvedon on the morning of the 8th November…

…we left the multiple layers of stratocumulus looming over eastern Essex, to find the two oaks east of Chelmsford surrounded by fresh-geen winter wheat beneath an increasingly blue sky:

The next day began as a kind of painterly melange, with autumn leaves seen from Platform 3 resulting in a Klimt-like explosion of colour:

Just out of Colchester, the view across the golf course seemed almost surreal, with the washed-out colours of John Piper or a Paul Nash watercolour, while the slightly eerie snaking paths and un-naturally smooth greens had something of a Giorgio de Chirico or Magritte scene:

…and with perhaps a nod to the Italian Futurists and British Vorticists, here’s what happens when a goods train passes the other way just as you are about to take a photo of some passing landscape (and makes you jump out of your skin):

Things then returned somewhat to normal, with a tail of cumulus mediocris draped across the two poplars after Marks Tey:

The winter wheat is emerging fast around the ‘White House’ approaching Witham…

…while another crop entirely is steadily filling the fields to the west of Witham:

The fields on the hillslopes of Galleywood also seem to be winter wheat, and the broken cumulus offered the possibility of an interesting sunset later:

In the event, most of the cumulus drifted away to the south-east quite abruptly at the end of the day. One minute there were large banks of cumulus, the next they’d all been swept away by an extremely chilly breeze which brought mares’ tail cirrus with it:

The extraordinary thing about skies is just how rapidly they change even when it looks as though absolutely nothing is happening. Different cloud formations were emerging and vanishing, to be replaced by new formations, in a matter of minutes even through a casual glance at the sky gives the impression that there is no motion at all. The following images, all taken within some 15-20 minutes of the first image, perhaps give a sense of how rapidly entire skies can change. Meanwhile the planes continued to land and take off from London City Airport, emerging from the eastern gloom to land, or leaping into the golden skies of the west over Canary Wharf, while, above them, larger planes circled before heading west to Heathrow:

The mares’ tails didn’t lie. Much rain during the night has been followed by a grey, damp and cold Saturday morning. Apparently La Nina is promising a colder than usual winter. Dig out those winter woollies…!

Essex landscapes and sublime sunsets – 25th October

Let’s begin with a serene sunset over Royal Albert Dock, as seen the other evening as I was walking along the university campus to Gallions Reach DLR Station:

Earlier, the day had been warm and sunny with rowers out on the dock enjoying Canary Wharf as the backdrop:

And the evening view from Gallions Reach DLR towards Canary Wharf, with the new Porsche Showroom glowing in the darkness (Oh how the wilderness of far East London has come up!), for a change gave no sign of any threatening weather on the way:

…and indeed today has been breezy but nothing worse than that, and the somewhat broken cloud towards evening suggested that a good sunset might be on the cards so I jumped onto the bike (now named ‘Monty’ according to my daughter) and headed off into the Myland fields. Things did indeed look promising:

Sitting on my little folding stool and watching things develop, the thick rows of cumulus mediocris blowing out of the west suddenly thinned to reveal an extraordinary display of golden cirrocumulus high above the darker cloud streets:

As the lower clouds moved off east, the sky above took on an appearance even more spectacular than a display of northern lights (which I’ve seen a couple of times in the far north of Scotland), with rose-gold clouds spreading across the entire bowl of a dark blue sky:

Then just as abruptly, banks of low cumulus blew in over the western horizon and it felt as though the night switch had been thrown:

Despite this, the golden glow from the remaining narrow window of sunset was bathing the field (and Monty) in a rose-gold glow:

Turning back to the sunset, I was surprised to see that the dark clouds had again dispersed somewhat and that the western sky was again a mix of dark blue, gold and flame-red:

This turned the whole darkening sky the sort of orange-pink that had caused such a stir the other day during the visit of Hurricane Ophelia, but here it was going largely un-remarked, and it was a glorious feeling to be standing in the field bathed in this strange luminescent glow. The moon had appeared above the horizon too, adding to the glow as it dodged in an out from behind the racing clouds:

Finally, however, the light began to fade completely, though it still left a golden-red glow in the west:

I was tempted to stay and see just how long it would linger, but the wind was picking up even more, it was now in effect pitch dark, and although Denis has an excellent front light I didn’t fancy pitching headlong into one of the deep drainage ditches that surround the fields so it seemed like a good moment to head home…. ….to find that England has finally won the World Cup !! Huge congratulations to the U17s, fighting back from 2-0 down to win 5-2 !! Spirit of 1966 🙂 (which I remember – in grainy black and white) 🙂

What the commuter saw: 25th October 2017 – sunshine and sunsets

After a few rather dismal days, the journey from Colchester to London once more enjoyed blue skies with somewhat raggedy cumulus, from the start of the journey over the Colne Valley:

Then past the two poplars west of Marks Tey:

Then almost (but not quite) forming ‘cloud streets’ of cumulus mediocris west of Witham:

Towards the end of the day, on walking back to our office from the lab to obtain a copy of material for our MRes student, I found the Albert Dock bathed in a gloriously serene sunset. A quickly grabbed panorama was followed by a hasty dash back to the office and even more hasty photocopying while through the office window I watched anxiously as the sunset reach its peak:

Having completed the photocopying I dashed out to the dockside, papers flying, and fortunately just caught the fiery burst as the sun finally slid below the horizon directly over London City Airport:

It was only while putting the camera away that I realised there were groups of students scattered all along the dockside – many of them 1st Years, I guess – snapping away at the sunset on their smartphones to capture the amazing sights to be seen from their university campus, and presumably then sending these to their friends and relatives all around the world. There was a sort of hushed silence all along the dock, and it was really rather sweet that they seemed so awestruck by the scene, rather than noisily capturing selfies… 🙂

Red Sun, Rain Storms and Restoring Bogs – Cumbria, October 2017

Well, the sky has been something of a talking point over the past week, what with Storm Ophelia, other-worldly skies worthy of Blade Runner, then Storm Brian. Unbelievably, given that I lug my camera round everywhere with me in case of interesting skies, the ‘Day of the Red Sun and Orange Skies’ was the one day of the year when I forgot to grab the camera as I left home for work. Consequently while everyone else in the south of Britain was snapping away with their smartphones and talking nervously about ‘the end of days’, I was kicking myself all round the university campus. Ah well…

The next day dawned bright and sunny, of course, so my hopes that the Sahara dust and Portuguese smoke would continue to hang over us were largely blown away along with the sand and smoke. I say ‘largely’ because in fact a close look at the hazy banks of stratus over the poplar field west of Chelmsford revealed a faint rosy tinge:

This tint remained as far west as the Lone Oak east of Shenfield:

…but by the time I arrived at UEL’s Campus at the Royal Docks there was just the barest hint of rose in the banks of altocumulus and alstostratus which covered the sky and partially masked the sun:

By lunchtime all trace of ‘Hurricane’ Ophelia’s Sahara dust had gone, swept away to the north but leaving a fairly confused sky in its wake:

After a couple of days to gather our collective breath, storm warnings were again being posted, this time for Storm Brian. Reading these dire warnings, I feel that this is not ideal because I am due to be visiting a peatland restoration site in northern Cumbria with folk from Micropropagation Services, and indeed the sky looks increasingly ominous as I head north out of Euston towards Carlisle courtesy of Virgin West Coast:

By the time my train approaches the Lake District, the familiar mound of Hutton Roof Crags and its extraordinary limestone pavement is looking decidedly damp, while the fields in the foreground have already surrendered to the flood:

South Lakeland (where I started my career) is hunkering down beneath drenching bands of rain:

North of Kendal and heading towards the stunning River Lune gap as it wends its way between the hills of the Lake District and those of the Howgills, I am struck by the contrast of the scene at Fiddler Gill in comparison with the last time I crossed Flodder Beck:

This was only back in August:
This is not an evening to be wandering ‘lonely as a cloud’ in Lakeland; even the clouds are not wandering lonely this evening:

After the Howgills we emerge onto the long climb up to Shap Summit, and whereas on a good day there are wonderful views west all the way to the black rugged Borrowdale volcanics of the Langdale Pikes in the heart of the Lakes, this evening the heart of the Lake District is invisible, obliterated by the advancing weather fronts of Storm Brian as my train arrows north into the gathering dusk:

It’s all looking a bit grim for the site visit tomorrow…

Things don’t look enormously promising the following morning, with roiling banks of stratocumulus by the time we arrive at the site (Bolton Fell Moss – scene of an enormous amount of work for me and my colleague Jack a few short years ago, involving, amongst other things, purchase of a huge pizza oven and a criminal fleeing to South America with a suitcase full of money – but that story is for another time):

To our relief, however, after wandering round the horizon in distinctly threatening manner, these huge clouds appear to lose interest in threats and menaces, abruptly transforming themselves first into a sort of ground-hugging but rather gentle bank of cumulus fog which then drifts apart and fragments like pieces of a damp paper napkin to reveal beautifully clear blue sky:

Within half an hour the entire sky has become an orderly series of ‘cloud streets’ as ribbons of cumulus mediocris are shaped and aligned by the steady wind. The last thing I had expected to find on the journey north was that by the end of the site visit I would be sunburned…!

Fieldwork, eh? 🙂

What the Commuter Saw: 25-29th September 2017

The end of September brought a succession of weather fronts sweeping across London and Essex. When it wasn’t raining it was blazing sunshine (though mostly it was preparing to rain, already pouring down, or just easing off) so quick-change waterproof jackets or umbrellas combined with lightweight summer clothing were order of the day. Still, it made for interesting skies. The 25th began calmly enough, albeit with a complete layer of high thin altostratus cloud over the Colne Valley:

By the time we were leaving Chelmsford and gazing out towards Galleywood, the cloud was thickening noticeably:

Coming into Ingatestone the cloud layer was starting to boil into something quite ominous:

A bank of stratocumulus began to drift in beneath the altostratus as we passed the hills surrounding Billericay, threatening rain (two or more layers of cloud is never a good sign):

Sure enough, by the time I arrived at work there were heavy rain-showers sweeping up the Royal Docks.

The next day started with blue sky and billowing cumulus all the way past Witham:

But by Chelmsford these cumulus clouds were building up into threatening towers of cumulus congestus mixed with a broken layer of stratocumulus castellanus, once again threatening rain-showers…

…until by the Lone Oak of Shenfield the first of these was sweeping in from the west:

Arriving at the Docklands Campus of UEL, the Royal Albert Dock was ringed by a series of drenching rain-showers while itself being bathed in bright sunshine:

The next journey with Abellio Greater Anglia was on 28th, and it again started with banks of stratocumulus piling up over the two poplars west of Marks Tey:

Then things cleared as we approached Chelmsford, but the long ‘mares’ tails’ of high cirrus scratching their way across the blue sky above the white billowing banks of cumulus presaged the arrival of Hurricane Irma (or at least her tail end) after her long journey across the Atlantic:

A thick bank of cumulus congestus rolled by as we left Chelmsford…

…but after that passed, the sky remained streaked with long ribbons of cirrus uncinus, promising strong winds in a day or so.

The evening journey was provided with a stunning backdrop of cirrostratus fibratus, lit by the setting sun, firstly over New Hall School east of Chelmsford, then across the fields to Hanson Aggregates:

The sky over the fields west of Witham was darkening but no less spectacular:

Then as we crossed the Colne Valley approaching Colchester it was clear that the sunset was due west of us and therefore possibly offered views along Colne Meadows:

Consequently I hared off down the road from the station to the road bridge over the Colne, just in time to catch the last of the sunset (as usual, joined by several people on the footpath who had taken out their smartphones):

A last flash of salmon pink, and the sunset was gone:

Sure enough, the next day brought driving rain with thick swirling blankets of nimbostratus rolling across the Essex countryside:

Welcome to autumn…!

(and do think about my Etsy store if you are short of ideas for winter/Christmas greetings 🙂 )

For those of you wondering about my blancmange blanket bog (see Peak District blog), you can see it on BogFest’s website along with many other excellent presentations, although mine specifically can be downloaded here (and I’m planning to put an extended version on the SRI’s blog page).

Peak District to East Anglia – what the commuter saw

I’m just back from the utterly brilliant BogFest (yes, BogFest is a thing), of which undoubtedly more shortly – probably exploring my blancmange peat bog amongst other things. Just for now, however, I’ll explore the journey home from the Peak District and the evening twilight of home.

The morning of Saturday 23rd September started rather overcast and grey – which was probably a good thing for those taking part in the BogFest Fell Race that morning – but by the time I took my leave after talking about a citizen science peatland monitoring programme and stood waiting on the station platform at Edale, there were occasional patches of sunlight rippling across the fell sides:

As the train headed towards Sheffield these patches looked more and more enticing so I decided to hop off at Hathersage and re-visit the scenery around St Michael and All Angels’ Church, which formed the backdrop for a 1st October 2015 Facebook blog of bucolic photographs.
In the end the promised dappled sunlight faded shyly away behind yet more grey stratocumulus, but as I was photographing the cows and the far valley side I became aware that there was a Saturday afternoon cricket match going on down in the meadow at the bottom of the valley, rain not yet having stopped play:

The wall of the churchyard was heaped with ivy (Hedera helix) in flower. It is one of the few species to provide nectar at this time of year, and insect life was making the most of it:

While the graveyard of the church must be one of the most serene places in Britain to be be laid to rest, the village of Hathersage itself has some hidden delights, including a secret stream which gurgles through the centre of the village:

The journey south via Sheffield and London raced through a succession of weather patterns and a countryside which had recently been put to the plough and harrow:

By the time I’d passed from St Pancras to Liverpool Street and headed north-east towards Colchester, dusk was cloaking the landscape in broken stratocumulus. The occasional light, such as that from New Hall School east of Chelmsford, shone out into the gathering darkness:

The following evening I headed out into the Myland fields as I’d not been there for a while. Other than being taken for a dog called ‘Ginger’ at one point, the evening was zen-like in its calmness, and the sun slowly faded into the cloudbank to the west – but then gave a blaze of glory before sliding into the ever-darker twilight of the bats, which were feeding busily for their winter hibernation:

Next up, probably – the blancmange blanket bog…