Friday, December 16, 2011


I am very conscious of the fact that it has been three years since we last wrote a Christmas Letter.  Furthermore, if you received a Christmas card during this period, you were very lucky.  Sorry for staying out of touch so long!  You can blame it on me – I (Joan) have been quite depressed for many months, but now that I’m off the cancer treatment and back on my normal anti-depressants things are looking up.  I know a lot of people are embarrassed to talk about mental illness, but it’s a fact of life for me and I’m just happy that it can be controlled by chemistry.  So I’ll keep taking the pills and we’ll keep on smiling!

John is taking over with this letter, now:

So here goes - the news highlights from 2009, 2010 and 2011.  If you already were aware of these momentous events, or if you actually took part in them, please accept my apologies.  The situation is such that it's either a generic letter or nowt.

We remain in our little hollow in Shropshire, although there have been quite a few changes to Peel Wyke and its garden over the last three years.  A new heating system back in 2009 brought with it the added expense of removing asbestos, which cost us a fortune to remove a 6" x 6" square of the stuff. Early this year we had a major revamp of the inside of the house when we had a kitchen renovation which involved knocking what had been my library through to the old kitchen and putting in new work surfaces, storage, appliances, lighting and floor.  It looks wonderful and makes it easy for both of us to cook together without stabbing, flouring, sautéing or basting one another.  To be honest, we don't do this too often as we have adopted a system whereby we take it in turns to cook.  It is two months on and two months off, and "cooking" includes the washing up and the shopping, so the two months off is very restful.  Anyway, the kitchen remodelling meant I lost the area where I stored by books and files so I took over what used to be the guest bedroom as a study, incorporating both my library and my study, and my old study became the new (smaller) guest quarters.  At the same time, we had solar tubes put in to improve the light levels in a couple of places in the house and Joan had two new windows in her study/studio and we changed the paint scheme to up the level of illumination downstairs.

There have been changes in the garden of equal magnitude.  We continue in our endeavour to garden in a fashion that sustains wildlife to the greatest extent possible as well as subscribing to the concept of "slow gardening".  We don't fret about the fact that we are not going to win any Chelsea medals, nor do we beat ourselves up about keeping a "tidy" garden.  The more mess, the more bugs and the more bugs, the more birds.  Nevertheless, we have made some changes of note.  We started by removing a fence between our property and the adjacent garden (which is a wooded hillside that the neighbours don't use at all) and planting a hedge of native species.  The old fence was stacked to make a huge insect habitat and I even took a hedge laying course in late 2010, although it will be a long while before our hedge is ready to receive my ministrations at the rate it is growing.  We removed some old ugly concrete paths, put in a path of pavers along the edge of the lawn and added more windy paths of wood chips and stones through the shrubs.  I used the old concrete to build a "dry stone wall" along the edge of the stream - yet more habitat for invertebrates, reptiles and small mammals.  Last year we replaced a section of lawn with a wildflower mini-meadow.  The nurse crop did well this year but we have yet to see what the final result will be.  At the same time, we had some folk in to weave a willow "nest" below a large tree in the back garden, which is cool and pleasant in the summer.  Joan has hung up her hammock in there and, in summer, can lie there in the dark with badgers running and snuffling under her.

Finally, we have improved our wildlife pond.  We already had a small pond between the house and the stream but we replaced this with a larger one this summer in the same place.  This involved carefully moving all of the wildlife (newts, beetles etc) from the old one into a temporary pool while the new one was dug.  It is fed by runoff from about half our roof and overflows through a causeway into a marsh garden, where we are planning to put some carnivorous plants and other wetland species next year.  The runoff from the marsh goes into the stream.  The pond has shelving edges for birds and mammals to get to the water and is lined with rocks to create lots of habitat for newts, insects and the like.  Everything that we found in the old pond was reintroduced to the new one and we have had several interesting new insect species and have seen two species of dragonflies laying eggs in it just in the few months we have had it up and running.  For the humans, it has a water feature to create a restful noise and a small deck for eating (and drinking) outside.  We put a new door in our revamped kitchen to connect to the deck.  Bliss!

If you are a Web user, you can find out more about our garden at the Peel Wyke blog, which has pictures of many of the things I have written about above.  The address is

In 2009 we became boat owners (well, part-owners).  We have enjoyed renting canal boats in the past and had always thought about buying one.  As a compromise, we are now one of a syndicate of twelve owners of the "Longsdon", a 58 foot narrowboat that sleeps six at a pinch (although it is far more comfortable with four or two).  After some initial difficulties with the management company the syndicate employed to take care of the day-to-day technical and administrative tasks going bust (as a result of fraud), things have now settled down and are running smoothly.  Annually, we get at least three weeks cruising on the canals, two high season and one low season for our share, plus any other time the boat is not in use and has not been allocated.  This is all run in a fair manner with priority choice lists that vary each year.  My sister and her husband are also owners so we can collaborate to give us some flexibility in choosing cruising periods.  The boat currently resides at Great Haywood marina (near Stafford), on the Trent and Mersey Canal, close to the junction with the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, just 90 minutes drive from home.  We have been on trips on "Longsdon" in various months of the year, including with guests from Canada and Australia, and it is always a splendid antidote to stress.  The only exception was in 2009, when we elected to try mid-December.  For those reading this who are not UK residents, the winters of 09-10 and 10-11 were extremely cold here. We were doing reasonably well at the start of the trip but were aware of the threat of a cold outbreak and were monitoring the weather forecasts closely.  We had already turned around early to head back to the marina based on the forecast and had had some snow.  On the morning of the 18th, after a night at a canalside pub on the Ashby Canal celebrating Joan's birthday, we awoke to find the canal frozen. We pushed on through the ice, which was relatively thin, and moored up that evening, hoping for a thaw but the following morning the ice was even thicker.  Again, we tried to head towards the marina but it was not a pleasant experience.  Not only was the helmsman (me) very cold but it was hard to make headway through the ice and occasionally icebreaker tactics were required (riding the bow up on the ice to break it).  This is not good for the boat's undercoating and paintwork and sounds appalling inside a steel hull.  The situation was finally clinched when we came round a corner to find a narrowboat that had slipped its moorings and was now frozen in across the canal, blocking our way.  We moored up and abandoned ship, returning many days later during a brief warmer period to make a mad dash back to the marina.  The picture was taken during our rescue trip.  There was still a lot of ice on the canal and you can see if if you look carefully!  All-in-all, though, we are very happy with our decision to buy 1/12th of a narrowboat.

The "Longsdon" blog is if you want to see pictures.

Naturally, many of our holidays were taken on the canal but we have had a few more trips, the most exotic of which was to Costa Rica in March 2009.  This was a birding trip primarily which was arranged by a few folk from Columbus Audubon which we were invited to join.  It was a small group with a Costa Rican guide and driver.  We started in the capital San José and then headed south into the Talamanca Mountains.  We then returned through the capital and headed to Tarcoles on the Pacific coast and then north up the coast to the Gulf of Nicoya.  We then headed west into the spine of mountains through the centre of the country to stay at a lodge by the active volcano of Arenal and then on into the Caribbean lowland rainforest at La Selva.  Finally we made a boat trip to Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast and then back to San José to leave.  We were in Costa Rica for about two weeks and saw 292 species of birds (not many by an average "twitchers" total but this was a relaxed trip) as well as lots of interesting reptiles, amphibians, mammals and insects.  We very much enjoyed the country and would recommend it to anyone.  The only other trip abroad was my trip to Montreal in late 2009 to attend the workshop of the EPiCC (Environmental Prediction in Canadian Cities) project.  Since that was a business trip, and close to Christmas, it was short and sweet.

Within the UK, we visited the Peak District in 2009, where we met up with Australian friends Jan and Ric, who were doing genealogical investigations.  I could not resist a visit to Arnfield in northern Derbyshire, just north of Tintwhistle, while there - it was a bit of a dump.  Spring 2011 saw us in Dorset in a lovely farm B&B, a Christmas present from my sister and her hubby.  Finally, this autumn we went to Scotland with Columbus friends Bill Fenner and Julie Breeding, starting south of the border investigating Hadrian's Wall (I had never seen it), then moving to Loch Lomond, on to Mull, up to the Great Glen and back again.  White-tailed and Golden Eagles, otters and malt whisky distilleries all in one trip - wonderful!  Other than a few day trips, that is the sum of our domestic travel although I have done a few trips to Norfolk in February for birding on the north coast and I go to the British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland Water each August.

Take a look at the archives on this blog to see pictures of some of the things we have done.  I hope to get some more up soon.

So other than boating and gadding about, what do we do?  I have almost ceased working in climatology.  There is one project I would like to conclude but the motivation is weak.  I still do a bit of reviewing of manuscripts for journals and am associated with an urban climate project in Birmingham but that is about the limit of it.  I was very pleased to learn recently, however, that I have been awarded the Luke Howard Award by the International Association for Urban Climate.  This is "given annually to an individual who has made outstanding contributions to the field of urban climatology in a combination of research, teaching, and/or service to the international community of urban climatologists" (from the IAUC website).  I was surprised but very happy about this and am planning to attend the next IAUC conference in Dublin to receive it.

Otherwise, much of my time is spent on various bird surveys.  I work on both the national and county bird atlas projects that are mapping species for both winter and the breeding season (at the 10 km scale for the national and 2 km scale for the Shropshire projects).  Apart from my own surveys, I am an area co-ordinator for a region of Shropshire and data manager for the whole of the county for both the national and county surveys.  It is quite a bit of work but is interesting, particularly once the maps start rolling off my printer.

I am also an "Ambassador" (sounds grand doesn't it) for the British Trust for Ornithology Garden Birdwatch survey, which involves folk surveying the birds seen in their gardens on a weekly basis to study patterns and trends in garden birds presence and abundance.  The "ambassadorship" involves mostly giving illustrated talks to groups in southern Shropshire about garden birds, gardening for birds and the like - I specialise in the Women's Institute!  I also write monthly articles in a local magazine on garden birds.

The other birdy thing I am involved with is teaching an introductory course (with friends from the local National Trust) on bird watching.  This involves monthly indoor sessions on the birds of particular seasons and habitats, followed by a field excursion to look for as many as possible.  It lasts a year with the summer months off as the birding is not so good then.  I have been doing this for the last three years but am not sure whether we will repeat it next year yet.

That's about it other than helping to run the local branch of the Shropshire Ornithological Society and representing that group on the management committee of the Coppice Leasowes nature reserve on the outskirts of Church Stretton, as well as taking part in a Red Grouse survey on the Long Mynd, a process that involves mainly freezing one's proverbial off at sunset at high elevation in late autumn.

Some of Joan's volunteering responsibilities ceased when the Church Stretton Food Festival ended in 2008 but she straightway got involved with the Church Stretton Arts Festival and now co-ordinates the Arts Exhibition (painting, photography, crafts, 3-D objects etc).  This involves a lot of preparatory work whipping the exhibitors in to shape, sorting out a guest artist etc and is quite stressful.  She is also on the general organising committee for the Festival, runs its website and makes most of the advertising posters and the like.  I have no role in this event other than as "official photographer", which involves taking any needed images, including those at the performances.

She used to work a lot for "Scrappies", a local scrapstore that provides recycled materials for use in artistic endeavours by kids and adults alike but she has withdrawn from that commitment to some extent, although she still maintains their website and runs membership services.  The time released by lowering her level of activity with that organisation has, however, been used up on the town website, which is currently undergoing a major renovation and Joan has been involved in much of the preparatory work on the new pages.  The new site is due to "go live" on Monday so, with a bit of luck, that job will then take less of her time.

She still does a little polymer clay modelling and has a couple of friends who come round on Wednesdays to do projects.  She has also taken up the ukulele and is planning on rejoining the Shropshire Strummers once she has practiced a bit.

What else do we do?  We have been trying to go to concerts and the theatre more often (generally, inertia, not dislike, kept us away from performances).  Memorable among performances over the past three years were "The Tempest", by RSC and a South African company at Stratford, "Swan Lake" the Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe (cheesy in places but spectacular) and the play "Pitmen Painters", but there have been many more conventional performances, especially at Birmingham Symphony Hall and the theatre at Malvern.

We have resisted so far getting another dog but take care of cravings by dog-sitting for friends.  We managed to reach our 40th Wedding Anniversary in 2009, which should deserve some congratulations. Is it too late to request a free celebratory drink?

So it remains for us to wish you all a very Happy Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanza, Solstice, New Year or whatever else you celebrate at this time of year.  May the next year bring you peace, happiness, health and laughter.

Very Best Wishes from Joan and John.
Photo by Jenny Bowman who came to visit in August, 2011