An Otter In Stroud

Of all England’s mammals, there is one – more than any other – that I have always wanted to see in the wild.

Ring of Bright Water

That book

Only one animal which, since I saw that film and read that book as a boy, I’m aware of, subconsciously at least, as I walk alongside streams and rivers and shoreline.

When I was younger, many of England’s waterways were too polluted for fish and otters; and if otters could find clean water, they might be hunted with otterhounds. (Otter hunting was only outlawed in 1978). No surprise then that I thought my chances of spotting one in southern England were slim. But I looked nevertheless and especially when I travelled to more remote country in Lakeland, Wales or Scotland. I never expected to see one properly you understand; just a curve of wet fur rolling underwater or a streak of dark litheness flowing up a bank into undergrowth, leaving no trace but a ring of bright water.

And I most certainly never expected, not even in my weirdest dreams, to see one in front of my own house for goodness sake. Not a bloody otter.

Stroud Valley

The view from the house. The canal is in the foreground, the bench overlooks the hidden river beyond. The Friesian cow at the end of the rainbow is incidental. September 2018.

In August, we moved into a canal-front house in Stroud. And we knew on arrival that there are kingfishers here, nesting mute swans and I heard, to my stuttering disbelief, that otters live here too. As we’ve walked or cycled along the tow-path, I’ve been extra vigilant – obviously – hoping that I might finally see my wild otter. I’d seen kingfisher many times before I moved to Gloucestershire … yet to have seen them twice already from my house windows is still pretty amazing. But despite my fervent wish, I’ve seen no otter.

Until.

The other day, Jim and I were loading the car before driving off to Pembrokeshire. As we carried out far-too-much-stuff-for-a-three-night-break, we noticed a group of people on the far bank of the canal looking down into the river beyond.

Jim shouted, “What is it?” (half expecting them to shout back, “A body.”).

“An otter,” someone replied and after Jim and I had exchanged a wide-eyed grin, we left our luggage on the driveway, our house and car doors wide open and, grabbing my camera, jumped on our bikes, cycled seventy yards to the end of our road, crossed the footbridge and pedalled furiously back to the bench overlooking the river.

I stepped up onto the wall of the weir between canal and river and looked down into a mass of quaking watercress. Quaking because something was heaving it from beneath.

Otter Stroud (1)

I was twitching with excitement but still unbelieving … until up popped a dark blunt head. There he was: a wild, beautiful otter. Upon my word. He quickly disappeared but then re-emerged momentarily beyond the cress before curling back underwater. Was that it? Had he gone?

Otter Stroud (8)

Nope – he snapped up again, twisting manically and proving to be, in low light, a devilish camera subject.

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I continued clicking hoping for at least one decent shot before he was gone.

Otter Stroud (2)

But, he was in no hurry and appeared remarkably unconcerned by his adoring audience standing just a few feet away.

Otter Stroud (4)

He’d found a wealth of food and took his time enjoying it; whatever it might have been: snails perhaps or freshwater mussels.

Otter Stroud (3)

This was an encounter which slipped from hope to a breathless glimpse, to a prolonged close encounter, to … “Er, we really need to be off to Wales now, otter. Sorry.” Eventually, reluctantly, we let him be and cycled back to the car.

Otter Stroud (5)

There is so much relentlessly gloomy news about wildlife and the environment that this simple encounter was a significant and bright moment for me.

Otter Stroud (6)

For the rest of the day, at intervals, Jim or I would say, “We saw an otter. Outside our house.” Saying it made it more real.

Broadhaven Beach, Pembrokeshire

Broadhaven Beach, Pembrokeshire

Over the following weekend, as we walked the stunning Pembrokeshire coast, the sheer amount of plastic waste washed up on the white sand was keenly depressing; providing more unremitting evidence of what harm we are doing to our planet. As if we need more.

But, but the Stroud canal, the Stroudwater Navigation, is one resounding success story, amongst the havoc. The Cotswold Canals Trust has restored most of it in the past few years and plans to continue its resurrection all the way under the M5 and out to Saul Junction, linking up with the national canal network.

When Jim was growing up in Stroud in the ’70s and ’80s, the canal was mostly derelict: partly filled in, built over, dumped full of rubbish and fenced-off completely in places. And now? Well, locks and bridges have been rebuilt or repaired, the towpath reinstated and maintenance barges chug past our house – dredging, cutting back vegetation, keeping the waterway clear. What was once a fenced eyesore for our neighbour when she moved here twenty-five years ago, is now a wide band of still water with the occasional kayaker; and its busy towpath is used by joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers, schoolchildren and walking commuters. Thanks to all the astonishing work by the Trust and a host of volunteers, it is now home to a rich variety of wildlife including mallard, moorhen, swans, kingfishers and, would you believe it, bloody otters.

It’s nice to have some good news once in a while.

Waiting For Snow

It has been a terribly long wait since The Priory had snow enough to show and tell: a five-year wait.  The Beast from the East didn’t bring huge amounts of snow to my corner of Sussex; but if we were spared the havoc meted out to parts of the Kingdom, we had sufficient for me to lose several day’s pay.  But on Wednesday morning the skies cleared and keen to see The Priory wearing her rare cloak, Jim and I braved the roads to drive the half hour from our home, left the car on the road and walked down the drive.

Snow over the Priory (1)

A four-by-four might have coped with this icy slope the day before,

Snow over the Priory (2)

but I know from bitter experience that an ordinary car might not.  An hour of side-sliding and back-sliding in my own car, with spinning wheels under a pall of burning rubber, tends to stick in the mind.  As do memories of The Priory owner’s car marooned down below for several days.

Snow over the Priory (3)

Looking back up the drive

At -3.5ºC it was bitterly cold for Sussex,

Snow over the Priory (4)

but as I emerged from the wood and gazed down over The Priory a lazy, northerly sent the temperature way down further still, to well below my boots.  (In Yorkshire an icy, cut to the bone wind is called a Lazy Wind.  Too lazy to go round you, it passes straight through).

Snow over the Priory (5)

There was precious little warmth from bright sun above Margaret’s fields.

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In the gardens, the snow wasn’t as deep as I’d hoped for nor the trees as smothered.  But it was exciting to see the place under a decent mantle again; with gusts of wind whipping up flurries to quickly bury footprints.

Snow over the Priory (6)

Unsurprisingly, the east pond was frozen;

Snow over the Priory (22)

icicles clung from greenhouse guttering;

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and naked oak branches were picked out beautifully by white dusting;

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their undersides lit up by reflection from the snow.

Snow over the Priory (8)

I set out on a well trod, anti-clockwise circle of the grounds,

Snow over the Priory (9)

and crossed the footbridge for a good view of the house.  I wondered momentarily whether the ice was thick enough for me to walk across … but nah.  I wasn’t feeling quite brave nor foolish enough to try.

Snow over the Priory (10)

As I stood focusing my camera on some pollarded willow still in need of pollarding, a mandarin duck shot out noisily from under the bridge beneath my feet.  Being of a jumpy disposition, I jumped (and possibly squealed) and only just avoided slipping forward and testing my walking on ice quandary.

Snow over the Priory (11)

Across the meadow now, with a few sorry-looking daffodils poking through into the sunlight.

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I crossed the second footbridge in the footsteps of a couple of foxes who hadn’t bothered to skirt the vegetable beds.  Lazy foxes, like the wind.  No matter, garlic and onions have yet to emerge.

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And so to the west pond with Despondent upended on the bank.  She’s lain there since a house-guest recently paddled out for an adventure.  He was underwhelmed by the experience, I think, and even more so after needing a hand from a forelock-tugging-gardener to regain the shore.

Snow over the Priory (14)

February Gold narcissi have let me down again.  Were they renamed March Gold, I need never be disappointed.  But here February Gold always flower in March.  Or rather, once – once! – in nine years have they done what they promise and started their show in the very last days of the second month.  March Gold would be a truer name or Very Occasionally But Let’s Be Honest Hardly Ever Really February Gold.

Snow over the Priory (16)

I’ve pruned the apple trees already, so that happy task is done for another year – but it irks me that I missed the little twig top right.  Why is the inconsequential so stupidly annoying?  Or is that the stupid are annoyed by the inconsequential?

Long tailed tit

From the trees, I hang five bird-feeders.  I waited for birds to come and feed despite my proximity.  As I could no longer feel my feet, I couldn’t wait long but then one fidgety long-tailed tit did so – before he and his gang bobbed away in that curious, charming, undulating flight.

Robin

Up by the greenhouse is a sixth feeder.  My caged robin has fattened up handsomely and I really ought to fish him out and stick him under a pie crust.   But he will be sweeter yet after another few days.

Snow over the Priory (17)

Looking back – Margaret’s fenced pond with the greenhouses behind

With little gardening to be done on a day like today, Jim and I set out southwards, uphill to Margaret’s farm.

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We passed a small flock of her sheep … whose interest in us evaporated at our obvious deficiency in hay or sheep-nuts.

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More sheep watched us hopefully as we approached the yard, on our way to coffee in the Aga-warm kitchen.

Kevin

But first we loitered by the barn where, snug under cover, stood Margaret’s new ram.  He’s an imposing, fearless chap and I like him enormously.  He’s wearing a raddle – a huge crayon, if you like, that indelibly paints the back of any ewe he has attended to.  He’s probably rather proud of leaving his mark of love on the flock.  The flock, I imagine, less so.

Margaret’s animals almost always bear fine, resolute names.  There were her rams Digby and the mighty Cyril.  Her bulls – Lawyer, Picton, Envoy, Emblem and Wellington.  (I’ll gloss over poor Petal’s name.  Bless him.).  So what do you think the new ram might be called?

Beowulf would suit.

As would Thor, Maximus, Horatio or Achilles.

Athelstan?

But you’d be wrong.

Hi, Kevin.