The Green Baron, Bavaria and Bhutan

A land of fairy-tale castles and wooded hillsides, Bavaria sits in the south-east corner of Germany, bordering the Czech Republic and Austria. It is famed for its traditional lederhosen (leather shorts), Weißwurst (white sausage) and the Romantic Road, a route stretching from Wurzburg in the north to Füssen in the south, taking in enough turrets, towers and narrow medieval streets along the way to last a lifetime. Stray just a few kilometres east, however, and you can discover a completely different dimension to Bavaria, with the peaceful elegance of Schloss Dennenlohe and its garden and landscape park.

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The baroque mansion house at Dennenlohe was built in 1734, and sits in an extensive twenty-six hectares of landscaped garden. It was bought, along with the rest of the 400 hectare estate, by the current owner’s ancestor, Johann Gottlieb Freiherr von Süsskind in 1825  – he actually bought seven Schlosses, one for each of his seven children (he was a banker, enough said). Since that time some form of private garden has always existed at Dennenlohe, its character evolving from formal French parterre into more relaxed English-style country garden. But it wasn’t until 1978 that the current vision – part botanical garden, part landscape park and part family space – started to take shape.

Schloss Dennenlohe (Dennenlohe House, Dennenlohe Castle).

Robert Freiherr von Süsskind, or the Green Baron, as he is known locally, took over the running of Schloss Dennenlohe after his father died. With the estate already in capable hands and a healthy distaste for office life, he and his wife Sabine looked to the garden. ‘I had to find something to start here as a profession,’ he explains. ‘Working in an office for the next forty years, that is not my world! So I said, “Ok, we’ll start this garden”.’

A sizeable lake had already been excavated by his father, with the spoil from the dig forming banks around the edge and a series of small islands. These Robert has connected with bridges, each one with its own character, from geometric Chinese to flowing Art Nouveau modelled on the bridge in Monet’s garden at Giverny.

The water garden was one of the first areas Robert and Sabine developed, and initially the ground was full of nettle and reeds. ‘It was horrible work to cut the reed, and then pull them out by hand,’ remembers Robert. ‘But we never use pesticides: you never know how they will affect the garden long-term. Globally we are losing so many plants and birds, and we don’t know why, so it must be something we are doing wrong.’

To combat the ever-encroaching reeds, Robert decided to plant densely with rhododendrons, which did surprisingly well in the predominantly clay-based soil, provided they were given some peat to add acidity. ‘It took me more than two months to prepare the planting holes,’ he explains. ‘The lake froze over during the winter and I was able to take the wheelbarrow over the ice to add the peat into the holes before planting in the spring.’

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Today bold splashes of colour from these are complemented by the more peaceful greens of surrounding trees, expanses of clear water, and narrow pathways which snake and curl between the islands via bridges and boardwalks. This is a deliberate design construct: ‘We never make a straight path,’ says Robert. ‘Bad things go straight, good things are curving.’

As the garden has evolved and expanded, more diverse garden environments and styles have been introduced, including American prairie meadow, bamboo island, English rose garden, grassy amphitheatre, and even Germany’s largest artificial swamp. ‘It is a joint project with a botanic garden in Erlangen, near Nuremberg,’ explains Sabine. ‘It provides two hectares of extra space and habitat for bog plants which are on the endangered list.’

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Alongside this very serious aim, Dennenlohe also projects a playfulness seldom seen in large gardens. Giant giraffe-like chair sculptures prance, classical Ionic columns reach skywards, and stone cairns stand precariously on summits of man-made mounds of earth and stone. This sense of innocent enjoyment may have its roots in Robert’s own childhood: ‘One of my first memories is passing through beds of feathery asparagus ferns in my grandmother’s garden and feeling them on my skin,’ he recalls. ‘It was like a magic tunnel for a small boy!’

The crowning glory of the landscape park is a scaled-down, but authentic, Bhutan Temple, its materials all imported from Bhutan itself. Bhutan is the only country to recognise Gross National Happiness, in the form of a governmental index which is used to measure the collective well-being of its population.

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This underlines the philosophy here at Dennenlohe: not only to give nature a helping hand with the preservation of species, and to make a beautiful garden, but also to provide the opportunity for people to come and enjoy it. Sabine has been pleased and surprised by the garden’s popularity, and in particular by its broad appeal. ‘Last year we had a lot of families,’ she says, ‘and the children really liked it. A ten-year-old boy told me, “I never saw such a nice garden, so beautiful! We could run over the stepping stones and the bridges, and through the grasses. It was one of the nicest, happiest days of my life.” ’

See my website www.anniegaphotography.co.uk for more images or contact me for licensing. All words and images ©Annie Green-Armytage. You are welcome to re-blog and link-share on social media with full accreditation; no other reproduction of any kind permitted without written permission.

 

Prague – the world’s prettiest city?

Pickled camembert and drowned-person-sausage. It may not sound like a promising start to a week in Prague, but if you factor in the beer that went with it, sitting right on the waterside in what must be one of the world’s prettiest cities, then the picture gets a lot brighter.

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A female minstrel plays on Charles Bridge, as the sun rises. Prague Castle and Malá Strana in the background.

I was in Prague for a meditation seminar, with a group of around forty people from places as far-flung as Canada, Brazil, and New Zealand. This in itself was a fascinating prospect, but as it was my first time in the city, I was also determined to do my share of sightseeing. On the first evening we had some free time, so I ventured out on the public transport system to meet some Czech friends in the Old Town.

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Charles Bridge in the early morning light with towers and domes of Prague Old Town behind it.

The Old Town has been flourishing since the fourteenth century, and its architecture reflects this. I found it impossible to move around Prague without my mouth periodically dropping open in awe. From the intricacies of the Astronomical Clock with its hourly parade of apostles, to the monumental Baroque-Rococo buildings with their lavish decoration and gilded name signs, Prague is a feast of photogenic architecture, dominated by the iconic St Vitus’ Cathedral and Prague Castle ever-present on the skyline.

Having failed pitifully at navigating the public transport system, I finally arrived at the Charles Bridge (built in 1357 by Bohemia’s most celebrated monarch, Charles IV) and my friends Michaela and Jerry, waiting patiently, took me across the river into the Kampa district. There we found the John Lennon Wall, a gloriously anarchic tag-fest, which has developed since the1980s as a symbol of peace and protest – it became a rallying point for dissent under the Communist regime. A living thing, it is constantly changing as new graffiti overwrites the old.

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During the rest of the week, I enjoyed odd moments exploring the centre of the city, particularly in Malá Strana (Lesser Town), situated below the Castle and venue for many of our seminars. Quieter than the more popular areas, it nevertheless contains the lofty St Nikolas’ Church, as well as narrow cobbled streets, open squares and hidden gardens.

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Visitors in the Valdštejnsky Palace (Wallenstein Palace) gardens in Mala Strana.

A guided walking tour was also organised by our hosts, led by Zdeněk, a young Czech with flowing hair and a very large umbrella. An assistant minister for one of the local churches, he is also a professional tour guide, and apparently possessed of infinite patience as he shepherded a huge group of chattering, middle-aged individuals with very varied walking abilities around the steep cobbled streets. Herding cats would have been a lot more straightforward.

He regaled us with many historical stories: established by Prince Wenceslas (of Good King Wenceslas fame) in the early 10th century, Prague became the capital of Bohemia under Charles IV in the 14th century. It thrived, and continued as the capital until, according to Zdeněk, it lost out to arch-rival Vienna a couple of hundred years later. Further expansion was then prohibited, for fear it would become larger than the new capital. For this reason, so we were told, the existing city was preserved almost unchanged until relatively recently. (I became less confident in his historical accuracy when he also told us that Mozart and Casanova once partied together in a house in Malá Strana. This seemed unlikely given that Casanova was thirty-one when Mozart was born.)

Preservation makes the city sound like a museum, stuck in time, but nothing could be further from the truth. Its vibrant heart is its people: in cafes, on the streets, strolling with families in the gardens on Petrín Hill, or relaxing on the mid-river island of Střelecký.

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Couple kissing on the Radniční stairs, in the Castle district, flanked by St John and St Joseph. I’m sure they would have approved.

I found them genuinely friendly and welcoming, with an undercurrent of stoicism born of recent history. During a lecture by Professor Ivana Noble, of Prague’s Charles University, she spoke of a people who, until very recently (1989) were forced to adopt two personalities, one for public consumption and one reserved for trusted friends and family. It is difficult to comprehend how that must impact on the way people live and love, and carry on their daily lives. I felt privileged, in all senses of the word, to be among them.

The sausage, by the way, is utopenec, a Bohemian delicacy, and according to my Czech friend Jerry, it does translates literally as ‘drowned person sausage’. I want to believe it.

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Beer, bread and ‘drowned person sausage’ (utopenci, utopenec). A Czech delicacy, along with pickled camembert cheese.
See my website www.anniegaphotography.co.uk for more images or contact me for licensing. All words and images ©Annie Green-Armytage. You are welcome to re-blog and link-share on social media with full accreditation; no other reproduction of any kind permitted without written permission.

 

Why I enjoyed Nice more than I thought I would – Part 2 Highlights and Must-Dos

The Stats

We were in Nice for five nights and four days, travelling on BA from Gatwick.We stayed in the port area via AirBnB – for more details, see Part 1 It’s completely impossible to park in the tourist area of Nice, so we didn’t even try to hire a car. Instead, we did a lot of walking, used public transport, which is plentiful and cheap if a bit bumpy, and had one memorable Uber ride. We also did a cycle tour which I cannot recommend enough if you want to escape the bustle for a while. What’s more, you’ll get a guided tour, and a workout thrown in for free.

The Highlights

1. The Old Town

Exploring the streets of the old town (La Vieille Ville) on the first day, buying fresh fish and vegetables from the market for our dinner, and sitting listening to a great clarinettist serenading on the street as we sipped our coffee crème.

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Place Pierre Gautier

2. The Hill

Climbing the hill between the port and the old town and finding a Jewish cemetery, castle ruins, a lookout point over the town, and a whole hidden park perched on the top of the hill.

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View of the rooftops of the Old Town (La Vieille Ville) from the hill

3. The Garden

11 acres of garden at Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, with its main parterre laid out like a ship: the gardeners were made to wear sailor’s uniforms and hats with red pom-poms to remind the owner, Beatrice, of her extensive travels. Allegedly.

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View of the main parterre, or French garden, designed to look like the deck of an ocean liner (ship).

Different themed gardens included Japanese, arid, water – complete with musical fountains – a rose garden, and my favourite, a Provencal hillside rich with scent: lavender, rosemary, helichrysum, eucalytpus, and pine, basking in the midday sun.

Part of this trip’s charm was an Uber ride to the garden: a Jaguar XE rolled up outside our modest apartment, complete with squishy leather seats and a driver wearing a dark suit and tie. A small taste of how-the-other-half-live, for sure.

4. The Hillside Village

A trip to the hillside village of , a bit of a tourist trap, but worth a look and a wander. I enjoyed the elevated walk around the outer wall, although Chris felt it a little vertiginous and stayed firmly on the ground.

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The hillside village of Saint Paul de Vence

We also visited the Fondation Maeght just up the road:  set on a wooded hillside, the setting is really quiet and tranquil. The building is in-your-face 1960’s – modern, post-modern, I’m not sure of the correct term, and the art includes works by Miró, Chagall and Giacometti. 

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One of the sculptures at the Fondation Maeght. High art or just plain weird? You decide.

5. The Cycle Tour

Favourite of the holiday has to be the cycle tour we took with Nice Cycle Tours.  We opted for the 4-hour Riviera tour, as we couldn’t get onto the city tour early enough in the holiday. I am not a keen cyclist and the idea of four straight hours on a bike did fill me with a certain anxious tension (terror). I need not have worried. The bikes were e-bikes, which ride like a bike, with gears, but also have a battery-powered electric motor which kicks in with an assist as you pedal. It makes so much difference. I managed the four hours without any trouble, and it was such a blast!

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The start of the e-Riviera Bike tour, using e-bikes assisted with electric motors

Jenny, our guide, was from Brighton which was great, as she gave us lots of interesting info in English along the way. We rode out of the port and up into the ridge of hills which separates Nice from neighbouring picture-postcard town of Villefranche. After negotiating traffic, bollards and men with large packing crates full of water bottles (I only nearly fell off once), we found ourselves away from noise and bustle, amid olive groves and low brush and gorse-type vegetation on a road that no-one uses. All was silent, the air still and warm.

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View from the top of Mount Boron, down into the picturesque town of Villefranche, adjacent ot Nice on the French Riviera. Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is to the right.

Stunning views, a free-wheel down into Villefranche for a picnic lunch, and then all too soon back to the city.

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The picturesque seaside town of Villefranche

6. The Food!

I had forgotten how good French food really is. We didn’t have a bad meal once, and most were really, really good.

Check out L’Agrume, newly opened I think, from its lack of internet presence, on Place Garibaldi. The square is enormous, surrounded by buildings with trompe d’oeuil masonry detailing. We went here for lunch and as we were in Nice, I just had to try the Salad Niçoise. Made with fresh tuna, it was the best I’ve ever tasted – the orange, carrot and ginger smoothie was pretty amazing too.

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Definitely the best Salad Niçoise I have ever tasted. In Nice, obviously. L’Agrume, Place Garibaldi.

We also tried:

Les Garçons on Rue Rosetti, in the heart of the old town, is literally run solely by garçons of varying ages. Many tables are crammed into a tiny space decorated in industrial chic, walls with painted crumbling brick and graffiti, and large dangly metal lamps. It was warm, noisy, full of people, and the food was tasty, burger juices running down my fingers. I liked it.

Le Cafe des Chineurs, Rue Cassini, on the edge of the gay district, another hipster hangout, with quirky artefacts strewn around the place: sewing machine tables, old ornate metal backed chairs, 20s and 30s paraphernalia, full of shabby chic.

Chez Papa on Rue Bonaparte, one of the busy restaurant streets behind the old town. We were squeezed in at the last moment on a Saturday night, which was much appreciated. Chris ordered beef, I ordered tuna, but when it arrived I understood that ‘mi cuit’ means raw in the middle, so we did a swap (he likes sushi) which confused the waiter. Raw tuna notwithstanding, the food was great.

7. The weather

Although not guaranteed at this time of year (late October), we were lucky. Unflagging sunshine, and warm enough to sit outside until it got dark.

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Some fairly spectacular sunsets too.

Up next:

Why I enjoyed Nice more than I thought I would – Part 3 The Internal Journey

See my website www.anniegaphotography.co.uk/nice for more images or contact me for licensing. All words and images ©Annie Green-Armytage. You are welcome to re-blog and link-share on social media with full accreditation; no other reproduction of any kind permitted without written permission.

Why I enjoyed Nice more than I thought I would – Part 1

First Impressions

To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to it all that much. We were booked to go to southern Spain when the sudden demise of Monarch Airlines intervened. So Nice was a last minute scrabble around looking for a cheap flight to somewhere vaguely sunny and warm that wasn’t with RyanAir (who were also threatening more cancellations). We settled on Nice with BA via the flight search engine skyscanner, and it turned out to be a great choice (although when did BA start charging for food and drink??)

Nice itself is busy – lots of traffic, particularly right next to the famous Promenade des Anglais, but it makes up for this in a wide sweep of beach – more than 7km long – looking out onto a sparkling, seriously blue sea. It’s not called the Côte d’Azur for nothing. We stayed in the port area via  AirBnB and had found an apartment at the top of a 5-storey building. The port was as noisy as you would expect a working port in a busy city to be, but the apartment had great double glazing and the view in any case, made it all worthwhile. 

24260A tiny balcony had room for a tripod or a breakfast table but not both at the same time. Once I had learnt to tune traffic and the occasional pile-driver out, some of my best moments were spent, cuppa in hand, sitting on the balcony as the morning sun flooded in over the opposite hills, watching boats chugging in and out of the harbour. Some were tiny, some not so much. 

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A thumbnail history: Nice sits on the French Riviera, at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, close to the Italian border, and it got its name (originally Nikaia) from Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, after a particularly triumphant battle sometime around 350BC. It was an important trading port for centuries, and also a target for pirates and other warring factions, including various French and Italian clans. Its heavily fortified citadel was originally perched high on the hill, until it was besieged by the French in 1705 when this was demolished. Subsequently the old town (La Vielle Ville) came into being, nestling at the base of the hill and in 1860 became definitively French at the Treaty of Turin.

Its so-called ‘Belle Epoque’ began around the turn of the century when the great and the good came to take the waters and also, by the 1930s, to race cars (so it’s always been noisy.) Countless celebs have made their homes hereabouts: Renoir lived here, Queen Victoria spent her summers here, and other A-listers said to be currently in residence include Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones) and Elton John (we rode past the end of his driveway – allegedly – on our bike tour of which more in part 2).

24265.jpgAs we explored the city, and sat in comfy sofas in beach restaurants, both Chris and I felt echoes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the ‘smart set’ of the 1920s and 30s – he located ‘Tender is the Night’ partly on the French Riviera.

24263.jpgThere is a sleekness to many of the passers-by missing in other destinations, and vestiges of that opulent, here-today-gone-tomorrow way of living, embodied not least by the string of casinos along the Promenade des Anglais.

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What I really enjoyed, though, was the sense of enjoyment in life which seemed to emanate from many, although not all, people, tourists and residents alike. It was infectious.

24267.jpgUp next: Part 2 – highlights and must-dos.

See my website www.anniegaphotography.co.uk for more images or contact me for licensing. All words and images ©Annie Green-Armytage. You are welcome to re-blog and link-share on social media with full accreditation; no other reproduction of any kind permitted without written permission.

The Typhoon

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I’m in Hong Kong at the moment and everything has stopped.

This morning we woke up at 6am to a note pushed under our hotel room door: Chris’ work today was cancelled, a typhoon warning, force 8 was in force. Cyclone Hato (it means pigeon in Chinese apparently), which had been making its way westwards from the seas off the east coast of China, was set to make land within 75km of the city. 

hongkong-20170823-DSCF3015A while later the rain started, whooshing horizontally past the window of our 9th floor window. While Chris took himself off to the gym, I made a cup of tea (I can’t go anywhere or do anything without a cup of tea to wake me up), and then sat by the window watching. Or various windows, actually, getting different viewpoints and different angles onto what was literally a force of nature.

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Rain blowing horizontally, palm trees bending and streaming out in the wind, crates, rubbish bins, bits of tree and the occasional street sign blowing like tumbleweed along the street below. As the morning wore on, the storm increased in size and the Hong Kong government website broadcast updates half-hourly, moving the Tropical Cyclone Warning Signal from Storm Signal No. 8, up to Increasing Gale Signal No. 9 and then to Hurricane Signal No. 10.  This is the highest warning signal in existence for Hong Kong. Winds were reported as consistently 175km per hour (108 mph) near the centre.

hongkong-20170823-DSCF2938As I write this, everything is closed, apart from a few brave, or maybe foolhardy, taxis, and of course the hotels. Talking to our breakfast ambassador this morning (yes, that’s a thing) the staff were offered accommodation last night, but she preferred to go home, living within walking distance of the hotel. She walked in this morning in flip-flops and shorts, making some way underground and then dodging bits of rubbish and broken branch along the road to the hotel. Last time this happened, she said, something fell on her. Luckily she had her umbrella up and that saved her from injury or worse.

hongkong-20170823-DSCF2930Having sat, and stood, around photographing raindrops and waving palm trees for more than an hour after breakfast, we decided to brave the walkway to the harbour front, which is only about 5 minutes and covered overhead.

Wow. Exhilarating and a little alarming. Rain came at us sideways along with gusts of wind which had me holding onto the railing, watching polystyrene boxes and tree branches barrelling along below. The water in the harbour was choppy although maybe not as rough as I had expected, but being out in the actual world, experiencing the warm gale and the driving rain was amazing. And we got to use our waterproofs for the first time since we arrived. My packing-for-all-eventualities obsession finally paid off!  Drying off in our little air-conditioned hotel room, I am watching the drama continue out of the window. I was sceptical of visiting Hong Kong during the rainy season, but witnessing nature asserting herself has been memorable.

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Skomer’s birds, and how I found out I don’t want to be a wildlife photographer

The wildlife on Skomer island is amazing. I love the landscapes and the wildflowers, and (most of the time) the stripped-down lifestyle, but a large part of the magic for me is being able to walk out of the front door and see a small-eared owl hunting over the heathland, or hear a curlew calling from one of the ponds.

24021In fact, wherever I go, whether it be the coast of California or my own back garden I am drawn to the living world, from humpback whales to red admiral butterflies. So it makes sense that I should seriously consider concentrating on wildlife photography, right? As it turns out, wrong. Having bought a large lens (Canon 100-400mm II) plus a 1.4 extender, and a weatherproof storm cover I realised a basic design flaw. In me, not the lens I hasten to add.

This is hopefully the only thing I have in common with Donald Trump but I have very small hands. And my camera (a Canon 5D mk iii) plus lens plus converter, is heavy and cumbersome. After two days of using this combination more or less non-stop, my thumbs and wrists had the equivalent of shin splints. I am considering swapping to a super-telephoto compact but they all have very small sensors – apparently you can either have a full-frame sensor OR a big optical zoom but not both (unless you know differently in which case please let me know!)

 

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Puffin (Fratercula arctica) with sandeels in its beak, taking them back to its chicks in one of the burrows on the cliff top at The Wick.

In addition, I am a really impatient person. My undying admiration goes out to all those who perch motionless on a ledge for five hours, or even stay down crouching or on one knee for longer than a few minutes. Neither my body nor my mind can cope. Muscles start creaking and I get bored and wonder what I am missing out on elsewhere. 

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Grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) hauled out on the rocks at the Garland Stone.
Meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis) on bramble stems, Skomer Island, Wales.
Meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis) on bramble stems.
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Great black-backed gull (Larus marinus) among the wildflowers: red campion (Silene dioica) and bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta (syn. Scilla non-scripta). 

I also like context. I like including the landscape, the habitat, a sense of place in my wildlife images but it seems like that doesn’t work well for ‘proper’ wildlife photography which is all about the creature close-up, particularly for small repro in social media or even this blog.

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Large colony of guillemots (Uria aalge) with a few kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), nesting on the cliff ledges at High Cliff.
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Puffin (Fratercula arctica) sticking its tongue out next to burrows on the cliff top at The Wick.
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Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) perched on the remains of a drystone wall guarding a nest nearby. Red campion (Silene dioica) in the foreground. 
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Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) with grubs in its beak, perched on a rope and post at The Wick.
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Razorbills (Alca torda) in the sea and on the cliff at North Harbour. A puffin (Fratercula arctica) oversees from higher up the cliff.
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I’m coming to get you: Puffin (Fratercula arctica) walking next to burrows on the cliff top.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned before, I like discovering new places and exploring different cultures. So the defining moment for me came when we boarded the boat back to the mainland. We met a guy disembarking, loaded down with heavily camouflaged gear. ‘That looks like serious intent,’ I said.

‘I’m looking for the Skomer vole,’ he said. The Skomer vole is notoriously difficult to find apparently, living in the heathland undergrowth which covers the island and only emerging for brief scurrying.

His wife chipped in resignedly: ‘I really, really hope he finds it this year. This is his seventeenth attempt. Then maybe we can go on holiday somewhere else.’

Skomer Island: so much more than a rock in the Irish Sea

Sunset through the sea thrift, Skomer Head

puffin flying above the sea

I hardly ever revisit places. I love discovering new landscapes, meeting new people, seeing everything with fresh eyes. So the fact that I decided to return to Skomer, a tiny island just of the south-west coast of Wales, must mean that I think it’s pretty special.

We first visited last autumn, on a two day guided trip to get up close and personal with the large Manx shearwater colony, and I was so blown away by the place that I vowed to go back in the late spring to photograph the island’s most famous inhabitants, puffins. What I didn’t realise was that the bleak windswept heathland would be awash with wildflowers, the sun would be shining (we were lucky), and the whole place would be an oasis of calm.

sunrise over Skomer and its wildflowers

The island is a National Nature Reserve managed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. It is an important site for seabird breeding, home to colonies of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars, as well as the Manx shearwaters and puffins. As such it is protected from development and just a few hardy souls live here full-time: the warden and his partner and a couple of staff, supplemented by researchers at various times of year, and volunteers who clean the hostel and undertake monitoring tasks in exchange for the chance to be in this unique place.

Stepping onto the little jetty is like stepping out of the modern world in the best possible sense. No roads, no motor vehicles apart from one tractor to take luggage up to the Old Farm, no TV or internet –  so no bad news -no distractions apart from the business of living in the moment, right here, right now.

little girl walking the grassy pathways of Skomer

At the end of May grassy pathways wind through carpets of wildflowers: red campion, bluebells,  thrift, even the occasional foxglove. All inland paths lead to the Old Farm in the centre of the island and this is where you stay if you’re an overnight visitor. Most people stay for two nights but I wanted to have the best chance of at least one dry photographing day so we opted for three.

The Old Farm at bluebell time, Skomer

The Old Farm, Skomer

 

 

 

 

 

There are very basic facilities here. You need to bring all your food and drink with you, although there was a box of Tunnocks tea-cakes in the communal lounge for the severely sugar-deprived. Bedrooms are basic and can be damp and chilly. You are advised to bring a duvet cover for the supplied duvet or a sleeping bag; I brought both and layered the sleeping bag over the duvet. I am a cold soul. The whole island is off-grid and power is solar; water in the shared bathrooms gets hotter as the day goes on, more so if the sun is shining. Power sockets are few and far between, just three in the whole building, so if you feel bereft without your devices bring a backup battery. I hold my hands up to needing my phone at all times, if only to feel like I can talk to the rest of the family if I need to (which my daughters will confirm that I very often do.)

This ‘hardship’ – my daughter calls it first-world-problems – was easily outweighed by the sense of peace which descended on me as I walked up the path on the first morning. It was like the weight of my day-to-day problems – and those of our world – just rolled off my shoulders, leaving me free to breathe for the first time in months. Admittedly my shoulders were pretty sore again at the end of each day but that was due to carrying half a hundredweight of camera and lenses on my back. 

Sunset through the sea thrift, Skomer Head

The silence, filled only by the wind, waves, and sound of bird-calls is healing. The beauty of nature, whether it be mad puffins doing a courtship dance ten feet away, the sweeping view of hills across the bay from Trig Point, the highest point on the island, or a rich sunset off Skomer Head, all these make Skomer a really special place.

puffins in a courtship exchange
puffin with sandeels, SkomerThe stars of the show are, of course, the puffins. When we were there, they were just getting into the breeding season, taking possession of the burrows they use for nesting, and a few even had chicks, or pufflings as they are so cutely known. These were hidden away but evidenced by a few adults starting to carry back sand eels in their rainbow beaks. There are spots on the island where you can get really close and other parts where you can watch their antics from further away – they waddle like diminutive penguins on the ground but fly like little torpedoes, albeit with very flappy wings. They are fast!

puffin landing, skomer island

But it’s not just puffins that are the wildlife draw – there are short-eared owls hunting, oystercatchers and curlews crying, and black-backed gulls marauding like pirates, on the lookout for hapless chicks or shearwaters. All this amongst rolling heathland, little sheltered valleys, and never-ending views out over the crashing Irish sea. I may just go back again.Bluebells on the cliffs near the Garland Stone, Skomer

Next up – Skomer’s birds and how I found out I don’t want to be a wildlife photographer