Despite our differences, horses and cats live together in harmony as though there is a special connection between us. Don’t get me wrong, I think they’re a little peculiar given that they have one toe on each foot and can sleep standing up. But I celebrate our differences and enjoy their soft fuzzy muzzles and small gentle eyes. So I’m always a bit nervous about supporting events that involve the use of my hoofed friends. Nevertheless I joined John at the Ashfields Carriage and Polo Club in Essex to experience the thrills that humans find so entertaining at the races.
The horses were mighty fine specimens, tall and strong and beautifully groomed and all the riders were dressed to impress in their jodhpurs and breeches. The sport entails One, two or four horses running like the clappers around a course pulling a carriage that carries two or three people each of whom have a particular role. The person at the front tends to drive the horses forward shouting commands and tapping them with a whip if they go in the wrong direction. The horses know what is coming when they line up at the start of the race and are chomping at the bit to get going when the starter drops their flag. Meanwhile the person at the rear appears to throw themselves across the back of the cart, shifting their weight around presumably to balance the vehicle and stop it careering off the track on the tight turns. I’m sure this is a simplistic view and professional carriage racers would explain the rules much more eloquently.
It is a real test of endurance for all participants which is why I was pleased to see that the horses are taken for a drink, some food and a good scrub-down as soon as the race is over. John got some great action shots and also got splashed with mud at one of the driving obstacles so I suggested he could join the horses in the showers but he wasn’t amused! Instead he dried off by taking a walk around the paddocks and admiring the Essex countryside while I admired the impeccably manicured lawns. John would have to mow our garden at home for a week to achieve the kind of short lush grass that surrounded us at the equestrian centre. I would help but my paws are not designed to push a lawnmower!
Despite the numerous horrors being witnessed across the world these days, there are plenty of awesome humans on this planet willing to put themselves through aches, cramps and blisters in the name of a good cause. John’s son in law Scott along with a bunch of fresh eager souls are organising a sponsored walk along the shoreline from Bognor Regis to Brighton on 3rd June to raise money in support of people with cystic fibrosis. People born with this debilitating condition have a build-up of sticky mucous in their lungs and digestive system which can lead to a whole bunch of problems including difficulty breathing, malnutrition, chest infections, diabetes and osteoporosis. Although there is no cure, a range of treatments such as medications, staying active and airway clearance techniques can help control symptoms and reduce complications.
Scott and the rest of the gang have been practising walking to raise their fitness levels and eating healthily (most of the time anyway) in readiness for the big day. Here they are playing around with balloons, banners and buckets all donated by the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. The Trust supports those who live with cystic fibrosis, conducting research and campaigning to raise awareness and funds in order to improve outcomes for many people including some that are or have been close to several individuals in our gregarious group of fundraisers. The walk is over 30 miles from pier to pier and there are plenty of cafes and benches along the way for the walkers to stop and refuel. I would offer to accompany them but I don’t like getting sweaty so I’ll sponsor them a few quid and send them off with a smile! I hope the weather stays good and everyone remembers their bottle of water and packet of plasters!
Nothing sets the human pulse racing like a competition and the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) is a fine example of such an event. So when John was offered a trip to the iconic sporting venue Brands Hatch in Kent courtesy of Team Hard it was a no-brainer! John did all the work this time under a shroud of grey skies while I stayed dry and warm on my blanket in the stands. The moist air gives my fur a certain frizz that I don’t appreciate and as you know I don’t like getting my paws wet! The drivers on the other hand had no qualms about the rain that was forming shimmering beads on their windscreens. I thought the race might get cancelled but I guess it takes a lot more than water to stop these folks from testing their courage and skill behind the wheel of a Porsche Carrera.
Lights on, engines revving, lurching forwards desperate to charge (like me when John opens the fridge door), the horn sounds and we’re off. The noise is tremendous as a pack of swarming super-cars launches itself on to the track and they’re bunched up so close I’m stunned that none of them collide. Just an inch or two away from each, water sprays from their rear tyres and I imagine their steely faces grimacing at each other as they calculate their next moves, every ounce of energy focussed on getting ahead. No wonder there’s an emergency helicopter and half a dozen ambulances strategically parked along the race-course. Within seconds a few cars peel off from the main group and take the lead but one car spins off the tarmac to end up neatly parked on the grass and his hopes of winning are over.
BTCC Grid Ladies
BTCC Grid Ladies
BTCC Grid Ladies
BTCC Grid Ladies
Soon the heat from the tyres dries the track and the gap between the leaders and the group gets longer. The commentator’s voice becomes higher in pitch as he reveals the positions of the cars and the strategies the driver employ. Sometimes they swerve sideways to block the car behind them or drive right up against the car in front to take advantage of their slipstream before hitting the gas and pulling out to overtake. Two of the Formula 4 cars come so close side by side that they get stuck together and the Marshalls have to wave the yellow flag to slow the race while the two cars are prised apart. John was rooting for a young man called Jake Hill, the son of racing driver and motorsports commentator Simon Hill. Born in 1994, Jake is a rising star in his field and was competing this day in the BTCC for Team Hard coming in a respectable second. His dad gave him a big hug before he walked on to the podium for the first time in his life, but not the last I’m sure. As the celebrations continued, John arrived back at the stands proudly wearing his Team Hard lanyard and paddock pass and we began the trek back across the field being used as a car park to find the car was stuck in the mud. An hour later, a sweaty mud-splattered John flopped into the seat muttering something about sludge and people and cheesey chips. I continued to preen my whiskers knowing that John and I had enjoyed a really good day and I’d probably be in for a hot chicken supper on the way home.
The deepest of greens, the brightest of blues and richest of browns, birds come in a stunning variety of sizes and colours. They chirp, twitter, chirrup and cheap, squawk, croak and whistle. If there was a prize for the species with the widest ranges of noises, surely they’d win hands down! Or beaks up! I was so excited when John’s daughter Natasha pitched up at the house and we bundled into the car on this cloudy grey day to visit the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust site in Arundel, West Sussex. The Trust has spent many years protecting the wetland landscapes and conserving the thousands of species who rely on it or live in it. Like the Whirligig Beetle who looks like a shiny black opal that gyrates around the surface of the water looking for aquatic insects to feed on. If you think the word Whirligig is amusing, there are lots of funny named creatures in the wetlands. See if you can spot the Taiga Bean Goose in the photos, a speckled brown bird with striped wings and an orange patch on her beak.
Surges of adrenalin coursed through my veins every time I saw the flicker of a wing or heard the splash of water but I knew to keep my distance from the vibrant wildlife given my appearance as a sleek black predator. If only the birds and mice knew that I’m a sophisticated feline who jointly runs a photography business and has an active interest in the caring for all things nature. As I hopped over the gaps in the wooden slats of the walkway and headed towards the thatched hide, a pair of Brent Geese floated regally by on the water, their reflections perfectly captured in the shallows beneath. I peeked through the thick pallid winter reeds to spy on a lapwing cruising towards the bank with his fabulous feathered crown standing proudly at the back of his black head. Suddenly John whispered to me to look up and there a Canada Goose hurtled towards me from the skies above. I ducked my head down and ran away as she landed on the water with an enormous splash, quickly regaining her composure before gliding off with relative grace.
The handsome Kingfisher is one of my favourite birds, smartly dressed in blue and orange and contrasting with the pair of Shoveler Ducks with their shovel-like bills that were drifting elegantly by. A Curlew paddled across the sandy wet terrain looking for worms and seeds to eat whilst a pair of Mallards with their characteristic blue stripe on their sides headed towards the long dry grass in search of a cosy corner to spend the night. The trees and bushes provided camouflage for many perching birds like the Blue Tits who weigh a tiny 10g and somehow don’t get blown away by the winds. The slightly larger Great Tit was staring at the freckled Dunnock who had spotted a bug crawling along the branch below and I felt like there was going to be a rumble! Meanwhile a Chaffinch puffed its pale pink-beige chest out in envy at the Long-tailed Tit who had found a yummy piece of suet just seconds before. The red, yellow and brown Goldfinch kept his beady eyes on the log mound decorated with 3 giant Stag Beetle replicas. I sat by the log mound for a rest and started chatting to a delightful little bank vole who told me she scampers to the back of the kitchens every night for crumbs and morsels of food which set me thinking about supper. Natasha has incredible stamina and could have gone around the Centre one more time but John and I voted for home via an eating establishment after a wonderful day out.
The Hayling Billy Coastal Path runs between Havant (near Chichester) and Hayling Island along the route of an old railway line. The railway line puffed its last cloud of steam in 1963 and gradually became overgrown with weeds and bramble until a plucky group of volunteers transformed the 8 miles of track some 20 years later into a lovely nature walk. John and his talented wildlife-photographer daughter Natasha took me out on this clear crisp winter’s day to see the Billy Line for ourselves. Nature trails are one of my favourite things to do and no it’s not because I want to chase the birds. I’m a good cat who respects the natural world! Anyway, some of these wading birds are taller than me, like the white egret I saw feeding on tiny fish, frogs and insects in the mudflats. At least I think it’ an egret! John and I are not professional ornithologists and we rely on our experience and a handy RSPB pocket book to work out which breed the birds belong to!
We walked past an old signal and the remains of a railway bridge (the only reminders left over from the original Hayling Island Billy Line) and out towards Langstone, a picturesque waterfront town with an old mill and an historical harbour. By the early 17th century, the shallow stretches of the harbour made a good location for salt extraction until the entrepreneurs of the 18th century tried their hand at clam and winkle cultivation. An attempt at oyster farming in the 1980s failed and Langstone Harbour eventually became a lagoon that provides a home to marine and bird life. The oyster beds form part of the attraction of this nature reserve for some of the birds we saw like this curlew with its magnificent brown-speckled plumage splashing around in the seaweed or the enigmatic peregrine falcon flying high above. Langstone Harbour is an area of international importance for its wildfowl and many bird enthusiasts gather there to watch the flocks of Brent geese and oyster catchers wading in the wet sand. The hedgerows that surround the flat grassland provide nourishment for butterflies and if you look carefully and stay very still there are plenty of pretty birds to be found hidden on the twigs and branches like the willow warbler or this little wren enjoying the winter sun.
There are apparently 20 sculptures carved in Portland stone that line the stony paths of this nature trail, each one designed to celebrate a piece of local history or wildlife. We spotted this Little Tern statuette whose curved wings commemorate the invention of windsurfing by a local resident in 1958. Having trekked 4 or 5 miles Natasha was still going strong and when it comes to wildlife photography that girl has patience and stamina; but my paws were getting tired and John could tell because he picked me up for the last stretch of our nature spree. When John carries me I get a great view because he is so tall and when I looked over the top of the hedges I was mesmerised by a field of giant hairy creatures with colossal horns. They were like magical beasts from the land of Nania! As I bobbed up and down in John’s warm hold my heart sank at the sight of plastic bottles and rubbish gathered on the shingle beach. The devastating impact of humanity’s excessive use of plastic is a source of great sadness to me. Plastic pollution threatens the survival all marine mammals and sea birds and will undoubtedly be felt by humans too who consume it in the food chain. The plastic tide is the silent killer of the seas so next time you’re in the pub or the café, please reject the pointless plastic stirrers and straws and ditch the plastic bags and cups in favour of re-usable bags and your own glass or mug (preferably with a picture of a portly black cat on it)!
When you think of me at the theatre, I’d like you to picture a shapely silky black cat sitting poised and regal upon a red velvet seat in the gilt edged surroundings of the Royal Opera House. Try to remember that image the next time you read that I fumbled about under the wardrobe searching for my toy snake and emerged with my whiskers covered in cobwebs, or that I chased a frog around the house but ran away when it croaked and John had to rescue it and put it back by the pond. We are all complex and multi-layered are we not, full of contradictions and surprises. This particular day I was ‘cultured me’ and my faithful friend John took me on a train ride to our capital city for a trip to the ballet to see The Nutcracker. It’s the story of a magician who was employed in the royal palace when he invented a trap that killed half the mouse population. Now I may be guilty of the odd mouse chase, but I would never approve of decimating half a nest of little mice. Understandably the Queen of the Mice was rather miffed and cast a spell over the magician’s nephew in an act of revenge, turning him into the Nutcracker doll. To break the spell he would need the love of a lady but not before he had faced the Mouse King in battle.
Photographs in this gallery supplied by the Royal Opera House ( All rights reserved )
THE NUTCRACKER ; Music by Tchaikovky ; Choreography by Ivanov and Wright ; Nicol Edmonds, Ryoichi Hirano, Melissa Hamilton and Johannes Stepanek (in the Arabian Dance) ; Produced by Peter Wright ; Designed by Julia Trevelyan Oman ; Lighting Design by John B Read ; The Royal Ballet ; At the Royal Opera House, London, UK ; December 2013 ; Credit: Tristram Kenton / Royal Opera House / ArenaPAL ;
Melissa Hamilton as The Sugar Plum Fairy in The Royal Ballet production of The Nutcracker (1984), choreographed by Peter Wright after Lev Ivanovich Ivanov (1834-1901) to music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), with set and costume designs by Julia Trevelyan Oman (1930-2003) and lighting design by Mark Henderson. Performed at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 23 December 2011 ***ARPDATA*** THE SLEEPING BEAUTY ; Music by Tchaikovsky ; Choreography by Wright ; The Royal Ballet ; At the Royal Opera House, London, UK ; 23 December 2011 ; Credit: Royal Opera House / ArenaPAL
Artists of The Royal Ballet in The Royal Ballet production of The Nutcracker (1984), choreographed by Peter Wright after Lev Ivanovich Ivanov (1834-1901) to music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), with set and costume designs by Julia Trevelyan Oman (1930-2003) and lighting design by Mark Henderson. Performed at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 26 November 2009. ***ARPDATA*** THE NUTCRACKER ; Music by Tchaikovsky ; Choreography by Wright ; The Royal Ballet ; At the Royal Opera House, London, UK ; 26 November 2009 ; Credit: Royal Opera House / ArenaPAL
We had a good journey (which was a bit of a shocker on our train network and far too expensive for a quick jaunt up to London) and finished up at Covent Garden tube station where we admired the front elevation of the Royal Opera House and an elegant sculpture of a young ballerina . I thought the tube was very clean, prompt and not at all smelly so well done tube humans. It was a stormy day so Covent Garden was not that busy and my paws kept slipping on the wet cobbled stones. Luckily a huge silver reindeer left over from Christmas invited me to sit down for a rest so I did whilst John wandered around taking pictures. I surveyed the quiet old marketplace which comprised a handful of stalls in the arcade surrounded by posh perfume stores, tea shops and chocolatiers. What a far cry this must be from the days of My Fair Lady when the sound of traders selling their wares would have filled the air and the scent of flowers, fruit and freshly baked bread would have wafted temptingly through every passageway. Anyway, let’s get back to the story.
Royal Opera House
A conflict breaks out between the toy soldiers and the mischief of mice culminating in the Nutcracker slaying the Mouse King with the help of a young woman named Clara. The spell is broken and the Nutcracker is transformed back into his real self before he embarks on a magical journey with Clara to the Land of Snow and the Kingdom of Sweets. They watch the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince dance delightfully together and meet a whole host of other characters like the Russian folk dancers and the traditional Chinese artists who help them celebrate with a dazzling performance. The snowflakes move in perfect unison as they leap and pirouette across the stage. The females dance delicately on their tippy-toes and the chaps with their lithe bodies gracefully execute their grand jeté – a long jump from one foot with a horizontal leg split in mid-air before landing on the other foot. The orchestra were fabulous playing the musical score written by Tchaikovsky with flair and finesse and I recognised a few pieces including one from a famous TV advert. The make-up and costumes were stunning and the whole show was a feast for the eyes. I only wished there was a little fairy dust left over from the magician to sprinkle on the silver reindeer outside who got have got us home in a jiffy!
Talk about planes, trains and automobiles! John and I took 5 different modes of transport in one day on our trip to the Isle of Wight last weekend and we must have seen 5 different kinds of weather too. The day started at 6am when I hopped on to John’s chest to wake him up but the gentle back and forth of his warm hand on my head and rhythmic rise and fall of his diaphragm sent me drifting back into a sumptuous slumber. My eyes opened a while later and I jumped off the bed to find John in the kitchen making a packed lunch and the camera equipment in the hallway ready to go. It was pitch-black outside and a damp 3ºc when we got into the car for the drive to Portsmouth but John knew exactly how to make the trip go quickly by supplying me with my favourite shrimp snack balls in the car and ensuring that my ears were not subjected to any Christmas songs on the radio. I know, bah humbug!
Gradually the dark turned to gloomy grey and then burnt orange as the sun struggled to peek through the thick layer of cloud above us and we transferred from the car to our next form of transport – my first ride on a double-decker bus. We climbed the narrow winding steps to the upper deck and sat at the front where the view through the floor to ceiling glass was fascinating. The hard plastic seat was cold under my bottom and the window kept steaming up but we were higher than the top of the traffic lights and it felt like we were going to crash every time we turned a corner. I imagined I was piloting a space craft through a mysterious shadowy nebula and the shimmering red light ahead became the glow of a prototype artificial intelligence seeking information about life on earth to complete its mission. But before I could make first contact with this high-tech lifeform the bus came to a halt and we bundled out and headed towards our next style of carriage, the Wight Ryder 1.
The Portsmouth to Ryde catamaran hummed steadily across the steely sea of the Solent and by the time we arrived on the island the sun had smouldered its way through the cloud to give us sunny skies and a temperature of 5ºc. We strolled along Ryde pier past a flock of brown Brent geese bobbing up and down on the water and saw four elegant white swans flying in a perfect row along the coastline. Our bellies told us it was time for a decent breakfast so we stopped in a small local café for sustenance before the next leg of our expedition. As John finished his last mouthful of black coffee, we wrapped up warm and stepped back outside for the brisk walk to Ryde Esplanade station and a ride on the Island Line. The red Island Line coaches are old London Underground tube trains from the 1930s and were a fitting way to transport us back in time as we chugged slowly towards Havenstreet.
Havenstreet Station was originally opened in 1875 and is the focal point of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway incorporating a signal box constructed in 1926 and a water tower alongside one of the platforms that supplies the locomotives before they depart. We boarded our train and watched clouds of steam puff their way over the glossy paintwork on the meticulously restored engines as the pistons urged the machine forward and I waved to Charles Dickens who happened to be wandering up and down the platform. After a lovely ride through the Island’s unspoilt countryside I got the chance to meet Belle and Busby, two rescued donkeys who were visiting that day. A beautiful golden eagle watched us from afar and I heard a rumour that Father Christmas had just landed in his grotto and was busy handing out gifts. Eventually everyone had red noses as the freezing temperatures got through our scarves and beanies and into our bones and dark clouds wafted across the sky giving us our cue to head home. We waited frozen on the platform sheltering from the drops of rain that threatened to turn to snow until the little red train pulled up to the station for our ride back to Ryde. John spotted his opportunity for another coffee as we warmed up in the coffee shop at the end of the pier awaiting the fast-cat ferry back to the Portsmouth. The hovercraft rose effortlessly on its air cushion and glided across the sand to the open water propelled by those huge blowers and that was the last thing I remember until I saw the twinkling street lights of home.