The early morning mist hovered just above the wet mossy ground and I was grateful that I had insisted John carry me in my basket. I did not want cold mud all over my soft silky paws! We were heading towards Patrick’s Barn on a private estate in Chiddinglye village near Ardingly in West Sussex. 400 year old Californian Redwoods lined the long winding drive as we headed towards the barn accompanied by the owner Becky and 3 of her loyal canine pals who were far too enthusiastic about trekking along this damp stony trail. I enjoyed sitting on my favourite blanket peering through the thick woodland for signs of deer or some interesting species of bird. But the imposing presence of the giant Californian Redwood trees along with the ghoulish gothic paraphernalia contained in our bags was giving me the eeby-geebies!
We finally reached the 17th century Patrick’s Barn as the gentle sunrise burned off the last of the foggy haze and began setting up the equipment. Our lovely model Kaylie got herself into that black lace and embellished bodice wedding dress while John and I figured out how we would use the lighting to create the atmosphere we were aiming for. We had two stunningly spooky bouquets of mysterious dark blossoms supplied to us by Steph Willoughby of Chirpee Flowers which finished off the look perfectly. The black mesh veil shimmered in front of our model’s smoky eyes and we were all happy with the creepy but elegant look of the shoot. John wanted to add a new style to the Shadow Photography wedding portfolio and this alternative to a white wedding is ideal for those who like to embrace the darker side of life.
John likes sports and much as I’d like to monopolise our photography projects with endless pictures of cats, it’s only fair that we mix things up a little by varying the shoots we do. It’s true that shooting different subjects requires a diverse set of skills and a photographer has to think deliberately about what looks good in a frame and why. There are many things that affect the composition of a shot such as lighting, patterns, shape and colour. Attention to detail is a must for any photographer and when John and I take pictures of wildlife, we have to be very patient and sit still for a long time while we wait for the animal to be in the right position. Taking photos of the basketball players required heaps of concentration and a quick trigger finger. Exposure control is also a challenge with these fast moving subjects and it’s easy to end up with blurry shots. Of course John and I didn’t take a single fuzzy frame!
It was rather sweaty in the basketball arena due to the vast amounts of running around that the players are required to do and the squeaking of trainers against the wooden floor was an aspect of the game that I did not relish. But even though I’m not a sporty kind of cat, I enjoyed watching the game and even got swept up in the moment a couple of times when the ball went through the hoop or was cleverly stolen from another player’s clutches. (I’m sure any basketball aficionados reading this will be cringing from my poor use of sporting terminology). At the end of the day, regardless of artistic value or balance of form, John and I know from running a photography business that the success of a photograph often comes down to individual taste.
We sat on rickety chairs at a creaky table made of wooden pallets in a room decorated with ancient tools used to grind and mill the crops that would have grown around this Croatian tavern. A vintage sharpening wheel stone stood at the centre of the room with rusty axes and timber implements adorning the stone walls of the restaurant that used to be a stone mill. John and I finished our main courses and John stayed to listen to the band playing traditional music while I took a stroll outside. The music was getting too loud and I needed to distract myself from the thought that those heavy pieces equipment hanging on the walls might come crashing down. I inhaled a deep breath of late evening air and looked around for somewhere comfy to take a nap. As I hopped on to the low bench just outside the kitchen, I caught a glimpse of a dirty black and white kitten with hunger in its eyes. I made up my mind that this little guy was going to have some scraps and John asked the owner for some leftover meat. A few minutes later John appeared with a plate piled high and the leapt eagerly on to John’s knee. John dropped the food along the bottom of a dark wall and cats and kittens gradually emerged from the dark to enjoy the best dinner of their lives.
The restaurant was located in Cilipi, a village on the outskirts of the city of Dubrovnik in Southern Croatia where we stayed in a countryside villa not far from the airport. We soon got to know the local strays and we were grateful to people like the restaurant owner who do what they can to help. But overall there was a feeling of indifference towards the animals and people were surprised that we would walk down the long winding road away from the villa twice a day to feed the cats that we’d seen rummaging for leftovers in the rubbish bins. We applied ointment to their wounds and drops in their eyes to help heal their infections although sadly one or two were too afraid to let us near them and never got the treatment they needed. But not all stray cats have such difficult lives as we found out when we visited the riverside Konoba Vinica restaurant in the village of Monkovic. While we enjoyed lunch by the river Ljuta, a chunky ginger and white boy luxuriated in the sunny patches scattered throughout the vibrant green foliage, gratefully accepting titbits from patrons and words of kindness from the staff.
The old town of Dubrovnik was like a labyrinth of ancient stone walls leading us through a maze of narrow cobbled streets. The city was surrounded by a medieval stone rampart, fortifications that protected the settlement in times gone by and now acted as a roof-top walkway around the city’s core. John and I climbed the steps to the top of the wall where the parapets and bulwarks provided barricades and safe places from which to defend the fort. My chest puffed out as I strode purposefully along the brick path before stopping to admire the magnificent views across the Adriatic Sea. My daydreaming came to an end as the sun began to dip low into the skyline and John scooped me up into his arms. Dubrovnik was filled with the most beautiful landscapes I have seen and the people were generous and welcoming. My thoughts go out to the strays in the hope that as time goes by the authorities will embrace animal welfare as part of a civilised society and the kindness of strangers will continue to foster a culture of compassion towards all animals – human and non-human.
Everyone in the world has the potential to be a little quirky. Goodness knows John has his peculiar ways and he would no doubt describe my quizzical expressions and episodes of gambolling about the living room like a frisky spring lamb as somewhat perplexing. But the guys and gals at the Steampunk event John and I attended the other week elevated quirky to a whole new level. We travelled beyond unconventional into the Victorian era and entered a realm of surprising and enigmatic characters who could have just stepped off the set of Doctor Who or the 1954 movie 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. The Subaquatic Steampunk Weekend at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport was my first experience of the eccentric world of Victorian science fiction but hopefully not my last.
I was like a child in a sweetshop all wide-eyed and with a gormless grin on my face. Not the usual unflappable and sophisticated style I normally portray. But there was a lady there who looked like an emerald green dragon with bright orange hair and a boy who looked like a cyborg from the 1950’s in a tarnished metal face mask embellished with cog wheels and rusted springs. I couldn’t help but be mesmerised by the gadgets and gizmos, boutique fashion shows and dynamic performances of the singers and musicians that entertained us. Ichabod Steam and his Animatronic Band were especially fascinating and became the source of a lengthy quizzical expression on my face while I tried to work out if he was a pirate, one of the Three Musketeers or the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. Eventually I realised that it didn’t matter if he was a romantic goth or a post-apocalyptic soldier. The occasion was full of fun and the people warm and welcoming – a fitting tribute to the Victorian era, the American Wild West and the innovation of the mechanical and digital world all rolled into one. Nowhere else would you see parasols and ray guns paired up with bowler hats and corsets. I might ask Father Christmas for a pair of aviator goggles this year!
These are the times that restore my faith in humanity and remind me that empathy and kindness are the cornerstones of a truly civilised society. When someone is willing to endure hardship on behalf of another person it’s a reminder of the goodness that drives many people to do crazy things like walking 28 miles along a concrete promenade in the searing heat to raise money for a good cause. The sun feels scorching as it reflects off the shimmering water that’s looks perfectly still, ideal conditions for the paddle-boarders and jet skiers enjoying their workouts on the tranquil water of the Sussex coastline. There are no trees or hills to cast a cool shadow, just a few beach huts and Victorian shelters dotted along the esplanade. A light sea breeze and a chilled bottle of water are the only things to provide relief from the heat on their glistening brows and red faces.
Scott, Dean and Kayleigh worked unbelievably hard to honour the commitment they had made to the Cystic Fibrosis Trust and raise as much money as they could to support people who live with cystic fibrosis. It was 24ºC on the sea front and even the most well-worn pair of trainers is going to rub like billio when you march 60,000 steps and you’re sweating buckets! Talking of buckets, the whacky walkers carried their collecting buckets all the way along their planned route which started at Bognor Regis pier and took them along the A259. The guys working on the improvements to the A259 deserve a special thank you for encouraging our intrepid trio and digging deep into their pockets. The footpath along that road leads to a bridge that crosses the River Arun and took our team to a pretty part of the coastline characterised by shingle beaches and sandy dunes spotted with spiky tufts of Marram grass. Sounds like an ideal napping spot for a cat who likes to roll around in sand and hide in long grass.
Lots of yachts and small boats were moored at Littlehampton Marina, bobbing up and down gently in the sheltered bay waiting for their owners to take them out to sea for a taste of freedom. Our charity walkers mostly tasted the salty air and it was time for a rest and a top up of fluids. The next landmark was a picturesque portion of coastline called Goring Gap which consists of hedgerows and dry grassland but has a hidden secret, a concealed World War II bunker tucked behind a dense patch of trees. As our walkers continued their challenge, the dehydration and burning blisters began to take its toll. Shoreham RNLI lifeboat station was a welcome sight as it marked a major milestone and meant they were only 7 miles from their final destination. As the summer sun started to dip lower in the sky, the Shoreham Lighthouse became a symbol of inspiration to guide them on the final leg of their long journey. And wearily but with determination, our plucky gang finally hit the finish line exhausted but happy. They should be very proud of themselves and despite the aching limbs and bandaged feet, John says they are planning to do something similar next year for another charity. Well done guys and thank you to everyone who supported them financially or emotionally for their trek along the entire promenade from Bognor to Brighton.
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)!