Wanderings around London from Embankment to Trafalgar Square

Facing political & economic turbulence, it can be useful to stop and smell the tulips

Fuelled by various political developments, the past few months have been a turbulent time in the global economy. Q4TK suffered a bit of neglect and indeed a bit of uncertainty as your correspondent sought to make sense of the situation. Reason, facts, and the normal analytical tools employed by the economics profession are being challenged. We economists are struggling to face up to the new populism evident in various parts of the globe. At the same time, most of us do recognise that some folks have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed.

Wanderings around London

And, so, today, I’m bringing you a few photos from my Wanderings around London from Embankment to Trafalgar Square. On Saturday, I decided to set aside my charts and tables. I simply walked out into the unfamiliar London spring warmth and sunshine. London was radiant as my spouse and I headed into the great metropolis. The parks and gardens bloomed in full glory. The area around Embankment was filled with folks spilling out to take a look around and soak it all in.

There were drum circles protesting tow path closures. Folks from a brewery gave out free beer samples. Small clumps of people sat on blankets enjoying picnics and glasses of wine. Tourists visited the key sights. Locals stopped to admire the flowers. Your correspondent used the occasion to stop and ponder whatever caught his fancy, except work. The tulips were in full bloom. But, I resisted the impulse to ponder the Dutch tulip mania, a time of price inflation and collapse in the 1600s. Rather, I stopped and enjoyed their fragrance.

A river of tulips in Embankment Gardens

A river of tulips in Embankment Gardens, seen on our wanderings around London

Still, economics can be hard to escape. For example, in the gardens at Embankment there is a fountain dedicated to Henry Fawcett. Henry was a blind economist who campaigned in the mid-19th century on behalf of women’s right to vote. The fountain says it was erected by his fellow countrywomen in his memory. During the struggle, he was moved to propose to a woman who he had met in the campaigns. But, after her polite negative response (she was pursuing her medical studies), he eventually married her sister.

Renewal accomplished

After a great lunch at Barrafina in Adelaide Street (very much a place in pursuit of no-frills excellence and highly recommended), the wandering led us to the National Gallery. This museum is architecturally gorgeous and the collection is world class.

As the day drifted into evening, it was time to head home. Every once in a while, a day like this is required. It has a spiritual value, refreshes the mind, and helps to restore the inner strength needed in the quest for truth and knowledge.

Note: The gallery below is annotated. Click on the up or down arrows under the thumbnail display in order to see the notes and see additional pictures.

London 8 April 2017 - from National Gallery to Embankment

A few photos from our Saturday wanderings around central London from Embankment to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery and back

[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_national-gallery-peekachu-people-and-a-pigeon.jpg]70National Gallery, Peekachu people and a pigeon
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_national-gallery-entrance.jpg]70National Gallery entrance
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_whistlejacket-by-george-stubbs-1762.jpg]70Whistlejacket by George Stubbs, 1762
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_national-gallery-marble-floor.jpg]60National Gallery marble floor
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_national-gallery-wonderful-floor-grates.jpg]70National Gallery - Wonderful floor grates
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_cellphone-art.jpg]90Cellphone art?
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_trafalgar.jpg]60Trafalgar Square looking towards Westminster
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_a-crowd-of-busses-heads-down-whitehall-to-big-ben.jpg]70A crowd of buses heads down Whitehall to Big Ben
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_cleary-gardens-london-loire-valley-grape-vines.jpg]60Cleary Gardens London - Loire Valley Grape Vines
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_a-half-pint-of-badger-bitter-at-the-ship-and-shovell.jpg]60A half pint of Badger Bitter at the Ship and Shovell
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_a-river-of-tulips-in-embankment-gardens.jpg]60A river of tulips in Embankment Gardens
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_embankment-gardens-wildlife.jpg]60Embankment gardens wildlife?
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_robert-raikes-founder-of-sunday-schools.jpg]60Robert Raikes - Founder of Sunday Schools
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_henry-fawcett-a-blind-economist-campaigned-for-womens-suffrage-in-1800s.jpg]60Henry Fawcett - A blind economist campaigned for women's suffrage in 1800s
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_a-cow-in-garden-of-two-temple-place.jpg]60A cow in the garden of Two Temple Place
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_amb-benjamin-franklin-lived-here.jpg]60Amb Benjamin Franklin lived here
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_a-really-big-crane.jpg]60A really big crane
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/london-8-april-2017-from-national-gallery-to-embankment/thumbs/thumbs_looking-out-from-the-roof-of-my-bathroom-greenwich.jpg]60Looking out from the roof of my bathroom - Greenwich


Tony Judt’s commentary on economic and social stresses

In cleaning out old papers in my home office, I just rediscovered a great book review from Tony Judt, his critique of Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism. Penned for publication in December 2007, Tony diagnosed developing economic and social stresses. He foresaw that the conditions then present could not endure indefinitely. Sadly, he was right. The financial crisis of 2007 morphed into the Great Recession. There followed a period of slow growth and increasing political tension in the advanced economies. Social cohesion weakened as inequalities deepened. Perhaps not suprisingly, many voters became more receptive to suggestions for radical solutions challenging the established order. And, then 2016 happened: Brexit, Trump, and nationalist political turbulence in the EU, among other developments.

Economic and social stresses, plus elements of a solution

Already in 2007, Judt suggested that we act to head off the emerging stresses. He noted that there were important lessons from an earlier time of economic uncertainty in the 20th century. Referring to those living a few generations ago, Judt says,

“We may discover, as they did, that the universal provision of social services and some restriction upon inequalities of income and wealth are important economic variables in themselves, furnishing the necessary public cohesion and political confidence for a sustained prosperity — and that only the state has the resources and the authority to provide those services and enforce those restrictions in our collective name. […] We may find that a healthy democracy far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends upon it: that in a world increasingly polarized between insecure individuals and unregulated global forces, the legitimate authority of the democratic state may be the best kind of intermediate institution that we can devise.”

Judt contrasted such a model with the alternative presumably being rolled out in the US as of 2007. The alternative included untrammelled economic freedom, accompanied by fear and insecurity, reduced social provision and economic regulation. It also included “ever-extending governmental oversight of communication, movement, and opinion.” While history had shown the advantages of balanced, market-oriented economic policies, the alternative approach failed to recognise the importance of social objectives in the successful operation of those policies. Even free markets need an appropriate rule book to ensure optimal outcomes for society as a whole.

Peering into 2017

As the year 2016 grinds to a close, I look out from the top of Greenwich Park hill with some trepidation. Economic and social stresses remain clearly evident. Unfortunately, Judt passed away in 2010 and is not here to update his assessment. I would love to hear his lessons from 2016.

Reflecting on the prospects for 2017, it seems clear that part of the solution should include Judt’s steps to improve social cohesion. Support for those dislocated by globalisation and technological change is needed. This might improve the chances to pursue successfully a more balanced and coherent approach to economic policy. As demonstrated by some Scandinavian countries in recent years, availability of such support can help to reduce the resistance to a positive, market-oriented reform agenda.

It may be that some positive, piecemeal actions are taken due to the current populist political movements in the US or EU. But, these are unlikely to prove adequate. We need more a more coherent, systemic approach. A first step might be to shift the objective from simply protecting what we already have. Why not set a more ambitious target of broad-based, increasing economic prosperity? A more inclusive and open economic strategy, including adequate social protection and improved educational opportunities, might take us further. By better mobilising the full economic potential of society, we improve our chances for improved future well-being.

Reference: Tony Judt, 6 December 2007, “The Wrecking Ball of Innovation”, in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 54, No. 19, a review of “Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life”, by Robert B. Reich; http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2007/12/06/the-wrecking-ball-of-innovation/ .

The view from Greenwich Park, London

The view from Greenwich Park, London

America: Don’t give up on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)

Look before you leap away from TPP

My fellow Americans, this is for you. Before the American people get all happy about the demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), I think you should look at it. I have studied it pretty carefully and read several hundred pages, skimming other bits and examined the economic literature on it. I have a couple of my own peer-reviewed studies on it. And here is what I see…

A high standards agreement

TPP is a high standards agreement that levels the playing field for American workers and businesses in a number of ways. It has a chapter to ensure enforceable (!) worker rights based on high international standards. TPP’s chapter on protection of the environment includes action-oriented provisions and also requires protection against trade in endangered species. TPP protects the free flow of data and openness of the internet with respect to trade including e-commerce. It makes clear the rights to fair use of copyright protected materials to keep information free for education or research purposes. The agreement improves protection for business confidential information. It keeps digital trade free from duties. And, a side agreement addresses concerns about currency manipulation.

A diverse group of reform-minded trade partners

The TPP agreement covers the US and 11 partners around the Pacific Basin, based on such high standards. It creates an alternative model for trade that prevents beggar-thy-neighbour policies and averages standards upwards. It covers developing countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, or Peru, and offers them a chance to play by US and free and fair market rules rather than taking a race-to-the-bottom approach. Even among the developed countries like Canada, Japan, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, as well as countries like Brunei, Chile and Mexico, it better aligns standards and regulations with those of the US. These countries have reached out and committed to an open, high standards relationship with America.

TPP is a win-win scenario

If we throw the TPP out the window, we will jettison at least a few percent of US economic growth (probably more than that over time). But, worse, we will leave the Pacific partners with few options but to look for another approach. And that means a less favourable world for all 12 countries, with a less level playing field for America. And, one thing we have learned from our history is that isolationist policies and pure nationalism do not protect us. Rather they leave us worse off and with fewer resources to look after ourselves. Why should we turn down this win-win TPP trade agreement, settling for a less prosperous future and a world turned away from the United States? That is not in our own interest, folks. (Nor that of our trade partners).

Take a look and get the facts before rejecting the TPP!

Hanoi traffic

Hanoi traffic: Will it be with us or will we veer  off the TPP road?

In politics, lies matter. That’s a fact. And we all may pay the price.

Are lies a political reality?

In a sign of the times, on 10 September 2016, the Economist published a lead article entitled the “Art of the lie“. Taking stock of the level of political discourse in the United States’ presidential election season and the United Kingdom’s Brexit debates, the Economist sums up the situation as a time of “post-truth politics”. In this era, the emphasis is on feelings and reinforcement of prejudices rather than facts. Assertions of what one feels should be true replace reality. Lies have become a more important feature of the political scene.

This distortion of reality is not a trivial matter, especially when it is manifest in leaders of nations. Incorrect information is a threat to the quest for truth and knowledge. But, the damage does not stop with impairment to one’s understanding of reality.

Promises, promises

A review of the academic literature on campaign promises posted on the web site FiveThirtyEight found that in fact politicians do behave in a consequent manner. In a majority of instances, once elected they do strive to attain their promised objectives. Politicians in the United States act to deliver on about two-thirds of their promises. In the United Kingdom, governments control both the legislative and executive branches (ie, a parliamentary system). There, the rate of follow through is more than 80%. Similar patterns were found in countries as diverse as Canada, Greece or the Netherlands.

False perceptions of reality can have tangible impacts in the direction of government. This poses risks to the economy, education, health, security and the other domains covered in  public policy. Whether in democracies or authoritarian governments, it is not in the public interest for governments to set off in a wrong-headed direction. Real damage is done.

Bad choices

A recent essay by the Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann, Through the Venezuelan Looking Glass, assesses why it is that nations engage in such self-defeating behaviour. In a nutshell, he points to dysfunctional belief systems.

Justice, at the entrance to the World Trade Organization in Geneva

Justice, by Luc Jaggi, 1925


Significant portions of a society may align on sets of beliefs that are not in line with reality. They do not reflect the facts. Damaging political decisions may follow. Hausmann cites the example of the Salem witch trials (1692-1693). He notes that if one believes in the Devil and thinks that Satan can take over women’s souls, then it may be reasonable public policy to hang those accused of witchcraft. On the other hand, in reality, such policy is incomprehensible to most folks.

Just the facts

As Hausmann puts it, “Politics is about the representation and evolution of alternative belief systems.” In setting the priorities for a society, there are a range of reasonable competing possibilities. There is ample room for debate on different options and approaches to improving our welfare. While science has a clear role to play, there is also a subjective element and preferences may vary among people. But, if the starting point is not even based in reality, then it becomes more difficult to make a viable choice and achieve tangible progress. Indeed, it can all end quite badly. One need look no further than the witches of Salem.

Restoring the soul with a wander up to Severndroog Castle

On a beautiful summer day, we headed out on a 12K urban hike across southern London from Greenwich to Severndroog Castle and back through Blackheath. Part of the route followed busy and ugly roadways, but a few long stretches followed the Green Chain trail through some of London’s parkland. The Green Chain provides urban hikers with some welcome shelter from the traffic and noise. While hiking it is not as much fun as a true wilderness wandering, it is nonetheless a great resource that helps urban denizens to restore their souls and hook up with some fine destinations!

Shooters Hill

View from Severndroog Castle

View from Severndroog Castle

Our destination was Shooters Hill, a rise of about 175 meters (500ft) that is south-east of London’s centre. It is covered with an old woodland that is dark and dense in some areas, but opens to afford great views of the surrounding countryside. The woods are filled with birds including some interesting warblers, woodpeckers and a few birds of prey.

Severndroog Castle

On top of Shooters Hill is a tower called Severndroog Castle (not really a castle), which was built in 1784 to honour an old sea captain, William James. He rose to be a director of the East India company and his wife built the tower as a memorial when he passed away. Good that she did, because the tower served as an early warning system manned by lookouts in WWI (watching for incoming German Zeppelins) and WWII (watching for incoming German planes and cruise missiles). It’s 85 steps up to the top of the tower and another dozen or so to get to the observation platform.

The old tower and ancient woodlands were saved by local community fund-raising efforts and reopened two years ago. Well done, folks! http://www.severndroogcastle.org.uk/

PS, the little cafe in the tower makes a great frosted Guinness cake and a nice cup of coffee.

Severndroog Castle

Severndroog Castle










Map (if you have trouble seeing this map, please go to https://www.q4tk.com)

Rediscovering the vine in Kent – English wine

London is far north, north of Calgary or Quebec City, north of Seattle, north of Bismark, North Dakota. And, being so far north, one might not expect to find viable vineyards within an hour’s drive. But, they are here, and they are producing some interesting English wine.

In search of the vine

Ortega grape vine and a trellis support

Ortega grape vine and a trellis support

Since moving to London from Paris, I’ve felt a sense of loss about my foregone Saturday jaunts down to the Loire River wineries and dairies. And, today, I decided to correct this gap in my current lifestyle. So, off I went to Kent County, which lies south-east of London.

The countryside of Kent is quite lush and the agricultural history is long. The climate is relatively mild and with global warming is expected to heat up, especially in summer (a matter the Kent Council has reported on).

Biddenden Vineyards

A number of wineries have sprung up and among the first was Biddenden Vineyards. Established in 1969, Biddenden has grown to cover 23 acres (9 hectares). Most of the varieties – well adapted to the northern clime – were new to me, including Bacchus, Ortega, Dornfelder, Huxelrebe, Scheurebe and Reichensteiner. Though, there were also some more familiar plantings of Pinot noir, Gewuertztraminer and Gamay to be seen.

Newly leafed out vinesThis far north, the wines are relatively low in alcohol (most were 10% to 12%) and deliver a refreshing taste of fruit.  My favourites included the Gribble Bridge Sparkling White, which has fresh fruit and a bit of complexity, and the Gribble Bridge Dornfelder, which is a light red and well-suited to a summer evening out on a patio. Without oak, the flavour of the grape really seems to come through clearly in the tasting.

The vineyard shop also has a selection of local cheeses, including goat, cow, and sheep. I loaded up on several nice organic cheeses, including a couple that are unpasteurised.

Reconnecting to the vine

Meadow on Gribble Bridge LaneBiddenden has a nice trail through the vineyards and along the Gribble Bridge Lane. Walking along on this mid-spring day, I could feel radiant heat from the sun. The new vine leaves were soaking it in. Birds were singing in the hedgerows and meadows. Wildflowers were blooming along the lane. I could hear a local donkey braying, but no traffic. The lovely, green, rolling Kent countryside extended out as far as I could see. It was glorious. I felt as if I had rediscovered something that I had lost, a connection to the vine.





Lee Miller – WW2 Correspondent – Special Exhibit

Recommended: Imperial War Museum exhibit on Lee Miller, through 26/04/16

Well here is an American WW2 story that is new to me. I went over to the Imperial War Museum yesterday to see a special photo exhibit of the work of the American war correspondent Lee Miller (1907-1977). She had been a model and photographer with Vogue in London, but as WWII progressed she became a war correspondent.


Highlights from the narrative at the exhibit

Lee went over to France just after D-Day. She got caught up in the fighting and wound up on the front lines in St Malo. From there and on across Europe, she delivered jarring photos and stories that others did not, reflecting the underlying human toll of the war. Women, especially, did not do such things back then.
Through 26 April 2016, see the Lee Miller exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London

Imperial War Museum, London

Her actions led to some amazing reporting on the war and its immediate aftermath (eg, pictures of medics, nurses and the wounded; the daughter of a Leipzig Nazi who had just committed suicide; homeless children without shoes in Budapest; collaborators being punished in France). After initially being reprimanded by the military for approaching the front lines, she wound up with privileged access, travelling with the regular soldiers and not the brass.
One surprising picture was taken in Hitler’s house in Munich. Lee went with US troops and witnessed horrors at the camp at Dachau. In the chaos of the just-liberated land she was then able to gain access to Hitler’s house, where she apparently proceeded — in a highly symbolic gesture — to jump in the bathtub to wash off the mud of Dachau.
After the war she struggled with alcoholism and depression, which followed from all that she had experienced. A recently published exhibit volume includes a number of her articles and letters and provides a real window into those times. That generation is passing away, but we should not forget the hard lessons that they learned.


For more information

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War, at the Imperial War Museum through 24 April 2016
Also, check out the excellent exhibit book: Lee Miller’s War: Beyond D-Day,
A. Penrose (ed), published by Thames & Hudson, 2014 paperback edition.

 Location Map

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Northward Hill Nature Reserve – It’s for the birds!

Northward Hill Nature Reserve – It’s for the birds!

One of the joys of living in the United Kingdom is the network of hiking trails. There are public-right-of-way paths throughout the countryside, traversing pastures, fields, fallow land and woods. These trails have been improved in some areas by organisations such as the  Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

A wonderful setting

The RSPB nature reserve at Northward Hill is one such area and it is indeed a splendid place. Located on the River Thames, the reserve and the neighbouring RSPB reserve at Cliffe Pools spread out from a wooded hill down along the floodplain all the way to the river (check out the video below).

View of the reserve

Today my hike took me across the working farm on the north side of Northward Hill. Having stepped in a cow pie, my thoughts turned to the phrase “fertile river bottom”. Just off the path, along one of the ponds, there is a hide (blind) for viewing the water birds. Today, there were various gulls, lapwings, a kestrel, Egyptian geese, plus a few widgeons and ducks in the distance. One of the large ponds has an electric border fence to protect the birds from predators.

Hiking up to the top of the hill left me duly impressed by the fine English mud and wishing that I’d remembered to bring my walking stick. Hiking back along the southern flank of the hill, the trail offers glimpses of the neighbouring horse pasture. But, what impressed me most was the noise of the birds in the thick brush along the margins between forest and field and ponds. Being well hidden, apparently they felt free to let loose (check out the video). The rich mix of songs left me wishing I’d studied the British birdsong CD prior to coming out.

Joyous birds in the brush

(You may need to turn up the volume to hear the birds in this video.)

Band of birders

Monthly, teams of volunteers operate a bird banding station at the reserve. Birds passing through the farm area are caught in nets and banded with ankle bracelets. Their measurements and health are noted and they are then released unharmed. This helps to build a scientific record for use in assessing developments over time at the reserve and points beyond (many of the birds migrate).

Today, the team caught a variety of birds and I was able to watch them in action. The first few birds were familiar blue tits (chickadees) and chaffinches, but then they caught a beautiful great spotted woodpecker (see pictures below). Though not particularly rare, the bird was amazing to see up close. His plumage was gorgeous. The fellow holding him said that the bird’s grip was powerful and that one had to take care to avoid getting caught by  the woodpecker’s beak. Once the woodpecker was released, I went on as well, as the banding team was settling in for a long day’s work.

A favourite haunt?

The area has a bit of colourful history beyond the birds’ plumage.  Apparently, it was a favourite passage for maritime smugglers in centuries past. The access by water and the cover of the forest made a good combination for those who brought in goods while avoiding duties. A pub did a fine business down on the river, presumably offering sustenance to smugglers, customers and customs agents. One published account tells of smugglers bringing in tax-free tea and textiles from Flanders and stashing the goodies in the woods on Northward Hill until they could be distributed.

More recently, during World War II, the area had a higher calling. Part of the site housed a key wartime facility for communications with the US. The structure remains intact, though nowadays it is surrounded by cows.

A fine day out

The Northward Hill reserve proved to be quite a worthy destination for a Sunday out of town, a place to reconnect with nature and recharge one’s batteries. Located about 40 minutes from Greenwich by car (see the map below), it is a convenient refuge not only for the birds, but also for harried urbanites seeking renewal.

Northward Hill Nature Reserve – It’s for the birds!

(If you don’t see the pictures and map, please click here to display the full posting directly from the web site: http://wp.me/p2sfPf-yK)

Northward Hill - RSPB Nature Reserve

[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/northward-hill-rspb-nature-reserve/thumbs/thumbs_the-road-to-the-rspb-northward-hill-preserve.jpg]30The road to the RSPB Northward Hill Preserve
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/northward-hill-rspb-nature-reserve/thumbs/thumbs_public-right-of-way.jpg]30Public right of way
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/northward-hill-rspb-nature-reserve/thumbs/thumbs_banding-a-great-spotted-woodpecker.jpg]40Banding a great spotted woodpecker
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/northward-hill-rspb-nature-reserve/thumbs/thumbs_a-great-spotted-woodpecker.jpg]90A great spotted woodpecker
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/northward-hill-rspb-nature-reserve/thumbs/thumbs_no-shortage-of-mud.jpg]60No shortage of mud
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/northward-hill-rspb-nature-reserve/thumbs/thumbs_ewarts-orchard.jpg]50Ewart's Orchard
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/northward-hill-rspb-nature-reserve/thumbs/thumbs_a-burst-of-colour-in-a-green-grey-world.jpg]50A burst of colour in a green-grey world
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/northward-hill-rspb-nature-reserve/thumbs/thumbs_cool-colours-looking-out-towards-the-river-thames.jpg]50Cool colours looking out towards the River Thames
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/northward-hill-rspb-nature-reserve/thumbs/thumbs_a-few-buds-of-end-of-season-red-campion.jpg]60A few buds of end of season red campion
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/northward-hill-rspb-nature-reserve/thumbs/thumbs_gnarly-branches-of-coastal-oaks.jpg]70Gnarly branches of coastal oaks
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/northward-hill-rspb-nature-reserve/thumbs/thumbs_northward-hill-rspb-sanctuary-with-cows-sheep-and-ships.jpg]50Northward Hill - RSPB sanctuary with cows, sheep, and ships

There are more pictures! Click on the up or down arrows to scroll through the gallery.

Gift aid - The work of registered charities in the United Kingdom is 
supported by a scheme that tops up member contributions with matching 
funds from the state. Thus, members of RSPB can leverage their giving, 
in essence helping to direct state funds toward worthy causes as 
prioritised by taxpayers (including yours truly).

Yosemite – Grandeur Even on Soggy Days

Yosemite National Park  – urban release

A few days in and around Yosemite National Park can do wonders for adjusting an urban warrior’s attitude. In this, I speak from experience. Although the park is crowded in prime season, with noise and traffic by the roadways and main paths, the sights more than compensate for this. And, one can reap further benefits by going out early in the morning or by finding less well-travelled paths. There are still places where one can find real peace and temporary release from the challenges of city life. It is restorative.

Drought, what drought? Birds, what birds!

Although drought has stressed the park — as can be seen from the dead pines and other sad trees that dot some slopes — the area still manages to host an abundance of nature. We set out on a guided bird walk led by Michael Ross (Yosemite Conservancy) and never left the paved roads and pathways. Yet, stopping every few meters to listen and observe, we spotted birds all around. In addition to some familiar peri-urban avians like ravens and Steller’s jays, we found forest birds like acorn woodpeckers and western wood-pewees and less familiar flyers like Bullock’s Oriole, yellow-rumped warblers, and northern rough-winged swallows. Standing there quietly on the edge of a meadow or woods, nature goes on about its business all around you. It draws you in.

Yosemite Valley - looking eastward as the rain clouds rolled in

Yosemite Valley – looking eastward as the rain clouds rolled in

Despite the drought, the weather was cool, rainy and at times downright soggy. The rain offered some advantages to those with Gore-Tex lined shoes and a willingness to explore. First of all, it transformed views around the valley into scenes reminiscent of Chinese scrolls, with lush greenery mixed with granite mountains and low clouds. Second, it gave the many waterfalls along the valley walls a turbo-boost, helping them to live up to their reputation. Third, it helped to reduce the flow of tourists along the pathways to the favourite sights. These benefits far exceeded the disadvantage of getting a little wet along the way.

Glacier Point in a Cloud

Glacier Point in a Cloud


An evolving park

On the way to Vernal Falls

In our wanderings over the course of a few days, I was a bit haunted by reflections from a piece that William Least Heat-Moon wrote for National Geographic Magazine called “Yosemite – Grace Under Pressure” (January 2005). He described the fate of the original inhabitants of the valley, most of whom were driven out or marginalised by insurgent Euro-Americans, and the damage to the environment in the early quest by the new arrivals to exploit the natural riches. He also pointed to reasons for optimism in that the park has managed to preserve the transcendent “grand beyondness” of the valley and brought people closer to nature.

Ken Burns reinforces this view in his film Yosemite – A Gathering of Spirit (2014), which highlights the efforts to protect the valley and surrounding region. Shown regularly at the visitor’s center, the film is uplifting and a fine way to dry out on a rainy afternoon. At the park museum next door, there are efforts at educating the visitor to the Native American history. An interesting model village and various exhibits highlight their culture and traditions. My favourite part of this was a demonstration by a Native American artist on the craft of basket making, taking redbud twigs and transforming them into practical works of art.

Beyond the valley

Yosemite Park is huge and one can only manage to cover selected highlights over a short visit. Beyond Yosemite Valley, there are sights such as the wonderful giant sequoias at Mariposa Grove (closed from June 2015 for two years of renewal) or open expanses at Tuolumne Meadows (which we saved for our next visit). There are big rewards in getting away from the main path and onto some of the side trails. Taking a little extra time, one can find calm and better observe the natural world all around. Walking the trails, thick with organic material that absorbs footfalls, is good for the soul. Thankfully, it is still here to be found and very worthy of our efforts to preserve it.

From our room at a B&B in Fish Camp, CA

My take on the view from our room at a B&B in Fish Camp, CA

Photos and sketch by Doug, (c) 2015

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Down House – A visit to Darwin’s Home

A visit to Darwin’s Home

Seeking to escape London, Charles and Emma Darwin moved their family to a country house outside the village of Downe in 1842. With similar — though temporary — intent, we also sought to escape the city for a day on Saturday. And, so, we hired a Zipcar and headed out in search of the Darwin’s home. We arrived shortly after opening time and we were glad we did. It is school holidays this week and the home was soon inundated with families on outings to teach their kids about nature and evolution. Judging by the ruckus emanating from the crowd, I had the feeling that some of the parents may have also been pondering whether to apply natural selection. Nonetheless, we were impressed to see so many young kids on scientific outings with their folks.

The voyage

Charles Darwin spent the last 40 years of his life at Down House. It is perhaps not very surprising that he stayed put for such a span of time. Darwin had previously spent nearly five years, 1831-1836, circumnavigating the globe on board the Beagle as part of a scientific mission. Nicknamed “the philosopher” by the crew, he served as the ship’s naturalist. While the trip provided him with the raw material for his seminal work on evolution, the sea did not sit well with his physiology. As Darwin wrote in a letter towards the end of the voyage, “I hate every wave of the ocean, with a fervor, which you, who have only seen the green waters of the shore, can never understand. […] I will take good care no one shall ever persuade me again to volunteer […].

Voyage of the Beagle, 1831-1836, © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons.

Voyage of the Beagle, 1831-1836,
© Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons.

We set out on our own voyage of exploration in search of Down House. Though a mere 20 miles from our home in Greenwich, getting there proved to be an adventure of its own. This was my first outing with a right-hand drive stick shift vehicle and the route we took involved travelling across a big swath of Kent on narrow English one-lane country roads, winding through a hilly, soggy landscape. The rural road network in the UK is surprising in its limitations. Well used by a fairly dense, automobile-equipped population, the roads twist along ancient paths with only an occasional bit widened for two cars to barely pass. In places, it seems as if the roads haven’t changed much since the days of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. Travelling on the high sea seems rather attractive in comparison!

Down House

Down House is indeed set in a beautiful location with acreage and a feeling of natural space around. One approaches the home through the orchard which is planted with varieties dating from Darwin’s time (some referenced in his notes and correspondence). Lenten roses were in bloom along the walkways and snow drops were blooming in a bed around back.

English Heritage has done a wonderful job maintaining and presenting the home, with many of Darwin’s own furnishings and other objects from the same period. Darwin’s study features his original desk chair and research materials. It is a wonder to reflect upon the working conditions of the mid-1800s and the discipline required to push forward a new scientific view. Darwin was no upstart and he was apparently very aware of the upheaval his work might cause. Consequently, he developed his research in a very careful and painstaking manner.

Darwin on evolution:
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
— Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859


The collection on display at the house includes a diverse array of items ranging from Darwin’s black beaver top hat and his backgammon set, to items related to his studies. Things that particularly caught my attention included his 750 page diary from the Beagle voyage, as well a number of satellite journals; a page from the hand-written manuscript for On the Origin of Species; a printed volume from ornithologist John Gould, who worked on specimens provided by Darwin; and three different Galapagos finches like those studied by Darwin, placed side-by-side to highlight the evolution of their beaks, which adapted to various food sources.

 My favourite item, however, was a copy of Das Kapital, a gift from the author to Darwin inscribed “from his sincere admirer, Karl Marx, 16 June 1873.” Darwin later wrote to thank Marx saying “Though our studies have been so different I believe that we both earnestly desire the extension of knowledge, and that this in the long run is sure [to] add to the happiness of mankind.” While most economists do indeed feel that Marx was an insightful analyst, as to Darwin’s point about Marx adding to mankind’s happiness, I do fear subsequent events may have demonstrated him to be a bit off track.

The way back home

On our way back to London, we stopped in Down village centre for lunch at the George and Dragon pub. There we enjoyed some fine English fare including a chicken and wild mushroom pie, chips (fries), and peas with gravy, washed down by a fine half-pint of Harvey’s Sussex bitter. The pub is a convivial place, providing a refuge for muddy hikers and soggy dogs, while offering a nice fireplace on a cold day.

Outside, it had begun to sleet. As we wandered back to the car, I stopped in front of the village church. There on the side of the bell tower is a sundial dedicated to Charles Darwin. This seemed like a rather fine place for a memorial to Darwin, highlighting that science and religion need not be in opposition. With that in mind, we set off to test the boundaries of physics and faith as we advanced down the narrow country roads back to London, praying that we would not meet someone with an opposing view… head-on.

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Charles Darwin's Home - Down House, Kent, United Kingdom

[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/charles-darwins-home-down-house-kent-united-kingdom/thumbs/thumbs_a-page-from-the-manuscript-for-origin-of-the-species.jpg]100A page from the manuscript for On the Origin of Species
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/charles-darwins-home-down-house-kent-united-kingdom/thumbs/thumbs_darwins-study.jpg]160Darwin's Study
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/charles-darwins-home-down-house-kent-united-kingdom/thumbs/thumbs_darwins-weed-garden.jpg]80Darwin's Flower Beds
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/charles-darwins-home-down-house-kent-united-kingdom/thumbs/thumbs_das-kapital.jpg]200From Marx to Darwin, A signed copy of Das Kapital
"From his sincere admirer, Karl Marx, 16 June 1873"
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/charles-darwins-home-down-house-kent-united-kingdom/thumbs/thumbs_down-house.jpg]110Down House, where Darwin lived for 40 years from 1842
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/charles-darwins-home-down-house-kent-united-kingdom/thumbs/thumbs_view-over-darwins-front-wall.jpg]90Looking over Darwin's front wall...
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/charles-darwins-home-down-house-kent-united-kingdom/thumbs/thumbs_church-in-downe.jpg]50The village church in Downe, with sundial memorial for Darwin.
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/charles-darwins-home-down-house-kent-united-kingdom/thumbs/thumbs_hearty-pub-grub.jpg]50A hearty meal at George & Dragon, Downe
[img src=http://www.q4tk.com/wp-content/flagallery/charles-darwins-home-down-house-kent-united-kingdom/thumbs/thumbs_john-goulds-ornithology-from-zoology-of-the-beagle.jpg]50A page from John Gould's ornithology in Zoology of the Beagle
=> From London to Down House