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.
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 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 )
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
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
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 ;
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!
It is with a heavy heart that I share some sad news about the loss of a dear friend. A few days ago John informed me that my great buddy Tiffin was hit by a car just a few doors from where she lived and she died instantly. Her sister Muffin and our other friends Basil, Ginger and Zoukia are all in shock over this unhappy event. Tiffin was a unique combination of courage and vulnerability, beauty and strength, dignity and silliness. She spent half her time wide-eyed and scatty, the other half stealthy and agile. She slept for England and loved her food. I remember whenever I visited her house for dinner she would go around licking all the bowls clean afterwards. When her owner scattered biscuits on the patio at lunchtime she would always be the last to leave, sniffing out every single morsel.
Luckily she was found only minutes after the accident and at least we know what happened to her and had the chance to say goodbye. But it is disappointing that the person who hit her did not stop to check if she was alive and did not even move her out of the road. I understand that accidents happen and unfortunately cats don’t realise the danger that cars represent, but there is no excuse for leaving a cat lying in the middle of the road. I know my readers are compassionate people who would never hit an animal and leave it behind without blinking an eye, but not everyone is like that. Stop and check the animal people! If it’s wild call the RSPCA or take the pet to the vet for life-saving treatment and to be scanned for a microchip in the hope that the owners can be notified. Today we mourn the loss of a lovely girl whose life was cut short and to help us work through our grief, her ashes will be returned in the next few days and she will be laid to rest in her garden, the place where she was most happy.
For the final instalment of my New York adventure I’d like to share my experience of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now you might think I’m a cultured cat given that I portray myself as refined and sophisticated but I’m self-taught so my knowledge of the visual arts is limited. I’m familiar with a few famous painters like Renoir and Picasso, I’ve heard of Michelangelo and I’ve admired a poster of Le Chat Noir from 19th century Paris once in a coffee shop; but I’ve spent more time in the countryside than I have in art galleries. I felt like a child in a sweet shop as I wandered through the imposing façade of this Gothic-revival style building and stood in the entrance hall surrounded by numerous corridors leading to halls filled with sculptures, jewellery, pottery, ornaments, textiles, costumes, musical instruments and paintings spanning 5000 years and representing cultures from all over the world.
I was dawdling because there was so much to see and John had to keep chivvying me on but you know how curious cats can be and I wanted to investigate every passageway. The paintings area was split into multiple rooms dedicated to a particular artist each with a concrete bench in the centre of each room. When I hopped on to a bench I noticed that many of the tourists were looking at me and taking pictures as though they’d never seen a cultured cat at an art gallery before. I’m sure John thought I was spending time mesmerised by serenity of Claude Monet’s Waterlily Pond or captivated by the work of Gustave Courbet and his portrayals of people and scenes from the 1800s but really I was posing for the cameras! Anyway, the sight of Van Gogh’s abstract portraits and still-life pictures had given me a wibbly-wobbly feeling that I didn’t enjoy so it was time to explore the Halls of Arms and Armour which displayed weapons and protective military clothing from the Roman Empire, Ancient Greece, Dynastic Egypt and the Americas. My fur prickled as my eyes caught the stare of a dark shadow behind an enclosed metal helmet that formed part of a suit of armour worn by Henry VIII of England. I don’t know how people moved let alone fought for their lives wearing heavy layers of chainmail and steel plates from head to toe. There are more comfortable ways of looking stately and formidable I’m sure.
The Egyptian pharaohs had the right idea with their hand-woven linen robes embroidered with bold patterns and head-dresses adorned with feathers and jewels. The pharaohs such as King Narmer or Queen Nefertiti were the most powerful person in their kingdom, head of government and high priest or priestess often worshipped in a temple such as the Temple of Dendur. The Temple of Dendur was built during the reign of Augustus who ruled Egypt from 30BC to 14AD and was situated on the West bank of the River Nile in Ancient Nubia before it was dismantled and transported piece by piece to the United States at a cost of around 9.5 million dollars before finally being installed at the Met in 1978. The temple is dedicated to the goddess Isis and the gods Harpocrates and Osiris and is engraved with hieroglyphs, images of the sun, the outspread wings of Horus the sky god and scenes of kings holding sceptres and the ankh. Head held high, I strode regally between two enormous columns decorated with carvings of papyrus and lotus plants into a large chamber surrounded by a reflecting pool. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the still silvery water and looked up to see a vision of myself wearing a golden crown and a brightly beaded girdle waving majestically to my adoring crowd. I would call on them to devote themselves to the miracle of nature, to the earth and all its complex forms of plant and animal life, and to support the development of wildlife sanctuaries across the lands. Cats from every species would be free to meander through the lands and crowds would stop to gaze in awe at their furry beauty. All cats would become a symbol of grace and poise and Shad the Cat’s silhouette would be deified in inscriptions on the sandstone walls. What a wonderful world this would be!