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)!
The X-games is a high energy annual sporting event that brings together some of the fittest and most daring athletes from the across the world to compete for medals and prize money by flying horizontally into the air on a wooden plank or hurtling down an icy tube known as the superpipe. The superpipe looked like an enormous trench covered in thick smooth ice that started way up high in the sky and as you look up to the top, a small figure stands alone getting ready for the ride of their life. A horn blows and the small figure tips over the edge and begins their descent, faster and faster they loom towards you and the anticipation builds. The figure swoops across the pipe from side to side, soaring into the air and flicking their body into loops and turns as the crowds cheer them on. They glide into a jump and it feels as though they are hovering over your head almost pausing for effect before landing effortlessly back on to the ice ready for the next jump.
There were many events taking place during the contest including BMX riding, skateboarding and snowmobiling, all featuring challenges or obstacles designed to test the athletes’ agility and get the adrenaline pumping. The skiers and snowboarders are judged on who can perform the best trick or get the most height off a jump. John held on to me to keep me warm while we admired the performance put on by the athletes at this amazing Alpine snow park, 20 minutes from central Oslo. It is 1700 feet above sea level (that’s 530 metres for the metric amongst you) and offers snow-slopes and chair-lifts for winter sports enthusiasts and a cosy café for fussy felines who need to warm their cockles.
Although we were only there for the weekend we managed a brief visit to the city opera house, an unusual white building formed of glassed facades and horizontal and sloping surfaces. The productions of opera, ballet, theatre and music held within reflect the cultured nature of this artistic place. The tramway system carries 130,000 people a day to their various destinations while peace reigns over the dramatic peaks and rustic forest trails surrounding the fjord close by . While I was on the plane going home I imagined myself hiking through those rugged mountains like a black panther, roaring at the lynx that tries to chase me, climbing up rocky ledges behind a bleating mountain goat and discovering the long lost city of the Incas. Oh no wait, that’s a different mountain range, the Andes in South America. Still Indiana Jones doesn’t have a patch on me!
With all the beautiful sunshine we’ve had recently, I thought I would remind you of the wintry season we have just left behind, lest you forget to enjoy the nice weather while you can. Do you remember the crunchy cold snow under your boots, the dark damp evenings and that morning feeling when the alarm clock screeches at you and your paw peeks bravely out from under your thick duvet as you resolve to get up? I remember putting on my Christmas scarf and heading out into the bracing winter air with John to Bushy Park, the second largest of London’s eight Royal Parks and one of John’s favourite places to go. It’s a picturesque mix of woods, gardens and grassland that provides a haven for some of Britain’s wonderful wildlife.
The big attractions are the herds of roaming Red and Fallow Deer that live and breed in the grounds. Red deer are Britain’s largest land mammal although their size varies according to their habitat and the resources they have available to them. The big fellas at Bushy Park are obviously well provided for and their buff coloured rumps stood proud some 50 or 60 inches off the ground. I remember one particular trip on an autumn’s day when John and I crept stealthily towards a stag with our cameras poised ready, getting closer to a magnificent male and capturing some great shots. He had the biggest antlers I’d ever seen, may be 28 inches high with several branches coming off the main stem like a glorious crown. We were careful not to get too close but those gosh darn incredible ears of theirs are so efficient that he picked up the sound of a twig falling to the ground near us and lifted his head, making direct eye contact with me. I froze in wonder at this beautiful beast and he simply huffed warm air out of his moist snout and walked casually away. Respect!
There are lots more temptations to lure you to Bushy Park like the herons, ducks and swans that inhabit the ponds. My favourite duck is the mandarin pictured here with its red beak, handsome black and white stripes and rusty brown mane. It’s like an aquatic version of a tiger, only smaller with fewer teeth and feet. Alright it’s not much like a tiger, except perhaps the golden colours and debonair demeanour. But I did see a lion at the Park which some clever person fashioned with snow and a few sticks and leaves!
If you’re a water baby and enjoy the sploshing and swishing noises made by rivers and fountains, you would have liked the flowing stream and stony waterfalls that roll through Bush Park’s grounds. I only like water when its warm and I can splash through it because I don’t mind getting my paws wet. But ever since I fell in the fish pond at home I’m not keen on too much of the wet stuff so I kept well away from the edge. I recall positioning myself perfectly for a shot of the chilly water cascading under the bridge and across the rocks when a grey squirrel darted past me and put me off my stride. My camera tilted sideways so the shot was at the wrong angle and my paw slipped on a patch of damp moss resulting in a rather undignified sidelong lurch. As I made my recovery I caught a puffed-up green parakeet sniggering at me from the branch over my head. With a cold belly from hitting the ground during my embarrassing incident in front of the parakeet, John picked me up gently and took me back to the car so I could curl up on the backseat with my special heated cushion and dream of chasing that cheeky squirrel!
The sky is a clear blue, the candyfloss clouds wispy, the silvery sea ripples gently away from the flat shingle beach. This is Stokes Bay, a slightly sloping shelf of pebbles in the Solent just south of Gosport (Hampshire) that offers a great view of the Isle of Wight and supports a wide range of community recreational activities on the large expanse of grass adjacent to its beach. The area is often used by large warships such as American supercarriers to anchor as Portsmouth Harbour is not deep enough to berth them, and this was the reason for our visit, to check-out the 1,092 feet long aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.
The ship loomed across the horizon and John took some photos while I stared in awe at the enormity and grandeur of this battleship. It is designed to support and operate aircraft that engage in attacks on targets which threaten the free use of the seas and it’s a Nimitz class warship named after the 26th President of the United States, Mr Theodore Roosevelt. It also provides a credible presence for the military and a conventional deterrent in peacetime. Along the flight deck were the turrets for air traffic control and the radar housing placements for navigating the ship as well as 80 or so combat aircraft ready to be launched forward into the wind. The aircraft are recovered using three two-inch diameter arresting cables on deck which can bring an airplane going 150 miles per hour to a stop in less than 400 feet. That must be the strongest two-inch wire in the world!
I shut my eyes and wondered how a cat would feel on a ship like that. It would be quite an adventure, patrolling the corridors and scenting all those pieces of equipment, meowing at the galley staff for titbits and sneaking in to the captain’s quarters for a nap. If I was ship’s cat, I’d sit in the bridge at the front with the officers reigning over the seas, and I imagine there’d be loads of scraps left over from the 18,150 meals served each day to the 6,000 navy personnel available to tickle my chin. This $4.5 billion ship towers 20 stories above the waterline and boasts a 4.5 acre flight deck. Its engines power 4 bronze propellers each 21 feet across and steering is accomplished by 2 enormous rudders. Much as I enjoyed imagining myself in a garrison’s cap and gold sleeve stripes commanding a naval war ship, the reality is that I prefer my simple life at home. So I’ll forgo the prestige and responsibility that goes with being a fleet admiral and settle happily for my snake toy, extra plump cushion bed, chicken treats and John for company.
John and I have been looking for a way to build our portfolio and enhance our capabilities so we decided to enroll in Sports Photography School. I dug out my old satchel from the bottom of the wardrobe and insisted that John find my pencil case as I was very keen to make a good impression. But it turns out that photography school isn’t based in a classroom, but is actually an event shooting experience that takes you to all sorts of interesting settings. Like the Copper Box Arena (a multi-sport venue in the Olympic Park in London used for the 2012 Summer Olympics) which was the location for a championship British Basketball League game between the London Lions and the Bristol Flyers last Friday.
Apparently the Flyers are a force to be reckoned with and unbeaten in their last few games. However the Lions triumphed that night due to their mastery of offensive and defensive techniques. Oh yes, I learned more than just how to improve my photography. I discovered that basketball players pass and shoot, but more worrying they also foul, block and dribble. Most of these guys were over 6 feet tall with huge strides and an extraordinary ability to navigate through the crowded areas of the court. As you can see from the pictures, they were also adept at leaping vertically into the air, an essential skill required to perform a classic slam-dunk.
It was a great opportunity for John and I to develop our camera skills and I learnt loads about the importance of backgrounds and the challenges of timing key moments. Some of the fun moments of the evening involved these pretty ladies collectively known as the Lioness’s as they danced their support for the team, always smiling and so cheery. But there is also a role for the more sporty ladies out there and the game is played professionally by women in England. The Women’s English Basketball League is a professional competition that has thirty national league sides and includes teams such as the Rhondda Rebels and the Sheffield Hatters. I just love the names of basketball teams, like the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Denver Nuggets. I discovered that there appears to be great reverence directed towards the feline species demonstrated through the names of teams such as the Charlotte Bobcats, the Detroit Tigers, the San Jose Sabercats, the Florida Panthers and closer to home, the Nottingham Wildcats. I approve!
The early morning spring light was veiled by the heavy mist that lingered across the green gallops forming the backdrop for a location photography shoot John and I attended a few days ago. Regular readers will know how much I love being in the countryside spending time with nature, so you can imagine how excited I was to get up close and personal with some of the fastest and highest prized horses in the world. We were attending a course that took place in Newmarket (apparently the ‘headquarters’ of horse racing) with dinner and an overnight hotel stay included.
The food was delicious and the other photographers were friendly, although there’s always one who thinks he knows it all and kept flashing his equipment at the table. I managed to exchange a couple of surreptitious eyebrow raises with the silver-haired guy opposite me and remembered an old Chinese proverb which, in my words, goes something like this – “he who brags loudest, shoots daftest”! I noticed a man with thinning light brown hair and a quiff look sternly at me. Apparently he didn’t think a cat should be at the dinner table. But I soon impressed him with my impeccable manners, being sure not to slouch, put my paws on the table or lick anything below the waist!
Now I do like my peace and quiet at night and that’s exactly what I got when I went to sleep on a soft pillow at the bottom of the bed John slept in. I woke to the joyful sound of birdsong while it was still dark. I do like the birds and being a domesticated and sophisticated feline photographer, my instincts to chase them are well controlled thanks to my keen cognitive abilities, pursuit of photography and John’s exemplary care (he makes sure I have plenty of games to keep my mind occupied). When we went down to breakfast, the staff remembered me from the night before and gave me some extra salmon and scrambled eggs to keep my fur silky and prepare me for the busy day ahead.
Nothing had prepared me for strolling across the gallops just after dawn with hundreds of racehorses gathering around to do their morning workouts. They were so tall and muscular, their short shining coats glistening with sweat and hot air blasting out of their nostrils as they snorted and whinnied their way past me. I must admit I was slightly nervous when one of them stopped directly in front of me and lowered his head, but he gently pushed his big soft nose against my cheek as though he knew I needed some encouragement and from that moment on, I was well away!
He introduced me to the stable cat – a striped tabby boy who sat proudly on the ground watching the riders and trainers head out with the horses while the staff and grooms stayed behind to work in the yard. And did they work! Heavy wheelbarrows and water buckets were used to clear up the copious amounts of dust, dirt and manure that get caught in the most unattractive of places. The bedding is changed in the barns every day, the tack must be cleaned down and the horses feet must be picked to remove all the muck I presume. Apparently I’m not the only animal that needs to clean the toe jam from between my tootsies. But unlike some animals, I don’t do it in public! After a day at the stables I didn’t exactly smell delicious, so I packed up early to begin my washing routine and let John mingle with the rest of the photographers, smiling at the ladies and admiring the gee-gees