Monday, 9 April 2012

The Fabergé Big Egg Hunt

A few weeks ago, en route to an interview, I came across a giant egg sitting on a base outside the National Gallery.  I obviously couldn’t be late for my interview, but it would have killed me to run past without pausing to inspect it. So I took a quick photo of the first egg I saw in the Fabergé Big Egg Hunt before I was entirely aware of it.  Not long afterwards, that egg was sadly stolen. The egg in question was Our Team by Charlie’s Cartoons, covered in athletes and thus very 2012 with a nod to the Olympics.  Later, I noticed a green one nearby with a small clock in it, called Cuckoo, and my interest was piqued.
I remember the magic a few years ago of wandering around London photographing elephants, which is not something I would have expected to say or do.  The elephants in question were decorated by artists for the charity The Elephant Family  (which aims to turn around the fate of the Asian elephants, which face extinction after 90% have disappeared over the past century,  by creating crucial projects in their native countries and by raising awareness).  The Egg Hunt raises money for that charity and Action for Children, which supports around 50k of the UK’s most vulnerable and neglected young people. 

Basically, the Big Egg Hunt, presented by  Fabergé, had 210 differently and creatively decorated egg sculptures that were 2.5 feet high scattered in late February around London in 12 Egg Zones, such as The City, the South Bank and  the Docklands.  People were encouraged to hunt for them and tick them off a list in an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the most people participating in an Egg Hunt.  The project aims to raise over £2 million for the above charities.  

Each egg sculpture had a coded number on its plinth, and egg hunters were encouraged to text that (each text being a £3 donation) to enter a contest to win a golden Fabergé Diamond Jubilee Egg valued at about £100,000.  Also, all eggs are being auctioned off.  Some have already been sold, but most auctions end at 6pm on Easter Monday.  They generally seem to be going for about £1500 each, with some more popular ones, such as Odele Kidd’s gorgeous Polar Bear Ballet, which I sadly never saw in person, going for £20,000.  The bidding for one egg that is yet to be painted—the Chapman Brothers will paint the winning bidder’s portrait as Humpty Dumpty on an egg—is at £25,000.  It’s great news for all the artists, for the people who get these fantastic sculptures, and for the charities. 
I stumbled upon several eggs a few days after seeing my first, when walking through the royal parks, and then made a point of walking around the deserted City on a Saturday to snap several neat eggs there, and was interested to see several other people doing the egg hunt, even in that deserted part of town.  I intended to go out to do other Zones later when I learned that those eggs had been moved to Covent Garden, for an Egg-stravaganza.  All the remaining eggs were lined up in different parts of the Piazza, hung from the ceilings or dotted around the Market Building, or hidden in store windows.  People dressed (sort of) in bunny outfits were collecting donations and selling Big Egg Hunt books for a donation of £2.50, which listed all the eggs and enabled people to tick them off when they found each one, and then get a certificate when they found them all.
Such things are so important—not just for the charitable cause, which is crucial, but for the delight that it brings to so many people. Part of being a Londoner is enjoying the unexpected, coming across surprising sights every day.  Or being able to go out looking for them when you know they are there. And the sheer number of parents with their kids who had clearly made it a day out to mark off all the eggs even when they were all together in Covent Garden was  proof enough of the joy the project brought to so many. 
There were furry ones, beautifully coloured ones, one made of pennies, one that reacted to warmth to retain people’s handprints, ones with animals, ones making a statement, one with Maggie Smith’s Downton Abbey character painted on it, ones with legs, mosaic ones, one that looks like the Gherkin (which wasn’t the one in front of the Gherkin), metal sculpted ones including a bird cage, a Mr Potato Head one, ones you could look into, and ones that deserved to be in the Tate or National Gallery.  There was also a Where’s Wally egg (Where’s Waldo to us Americans) that was moved regularly, so it was harder to spot.

I simply smile when the various eggs come up in the slideshow screensaver on my PC, giving me the chance to inspect and enjoy so many of them more than I had before.  And I’m so pleased that the bidding for them has been so successful. There’s still a tiny bit of time left if anyone wants one of these gorgeous or fascinating big eggs in their home or garden. It beats an old Athena print or a garden gnome!  In any case, I urge you to visit the site to view the many varied, incredible eggs, read a bit about what motivated each artist, and donate to the cause if you can.  You can even buy miniature versions of some of the eggs or other gifts at the Egg Shop in Covent Garden or Selfridges.
Thank you, Big Egg Hunt coordinators, sponsors and artists—plus those in London who allowed it to happen.  This has been wonderful.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Talking Zoffany Sheaths as A Helicopter Lands in Trafalgar Square

The worrying news this morning that the Air Ambulance had to attend an accident on the M26 reminded me that, the other day, my plans to walk across busy Trafalgar Square were diverted by a helicopter landing in my path.

After a nearby job interview, I was drawn into St James's Park, where there are vast clusters of daffodils and cherry trees laden with early blossom in this freakishly gorgeous sunny time. I sat on a bench enjoying the peace of the stunning birdsong, but was chided by pigeons and waterfowl for not thinking to bring them food, unlike all the tourists whose snaps of their trip to London will feature grey squirrels taking treats from their hands, apparently one of London’s star attractions. I’m happy for the animals, though I was not surprised to see a rat scurrying in the reeds near the water. (I tried to convince myself that it was a water vole, which I’ve been trying to catch a glimpse of at the London Wetlands Centre for yonks, but it wasn’t Ratty; it was a rat.)

The chill moved me to decide to kill time until a lecture by viewing impressionist paintings in the National Gallery, which is fabulously free so you can dip in rather than exhausting yourself with the overwhelmingly large collection. I had just walked past the lions in Trafalgar Square and was about to manoeuvre my way through all the tourists when I heard a helicopter. This is such a frequent (and very noisy) occurrence in Central London now, I’ve almost stopped looking up, but this one caught my eye as it was bright red and hovering directly over the now empty Canada House on the west side of the Square. I was pretty sure that the only red helicopter was the London Air Ambulance and soon, like a normal ambulance, it sounded a siren—more of an alarm really, which I’ve never heard from a helicopter. It was rather surreal.

It seemed so inconceivable that something high in the sky should be sending a message down to us, like an alien spaceship indicating that it was coming in to land. Or maybe I’m alone in finding this surprising, the way seeing a lone plane in the dark sky with headlights lighting its way makes me smile, as though it needs to see where the road curves and avoid badgers and oncoming traffic.

So it took me and apparently the many others in the Square a few moments to twig that the helicopter was actually planning to land there, in Trafalgar Square, which was full of people, never mind the fountains, statues and the ginormous pointy thing that is Nelson’s Column. I’ve seen the Air Ambulance land in a road junction by my home in Greater London, but I’ve never heard of it landing in Trafalgar Square (though there’s no requirement to notify me). But when you think of it, if they needed to get an A&E doctor to a patient immediately in Central London, where else might they land? Nearby squares have trees, benches, statues and probably closer power lines.

Indeed, having sounded the warning alarm, the helicopter started descending toward us, and faced with the prospect of 3 tonnes of metal attached to a spinning chopping blade being lowered onto our heads, we had the sense to move. There were no single stupid people who you sometimes see lingering in such situations thinking it might be funny to be non-conformist, and we left plenty of room.

Many of us raised our cameras and phones to photo-graph the sight of a helicopter landing in front of us. I was aware that helicopters stirred up a lot of dust so I prepared to squint, but I was completely unprepared for the solid wall of filth that whacked us hard in the face and coated every strand of my hair. So we dropped our initially outstretched camera-holding arms, ducked and sought cover behind statues or construction sheeting nearby. When it seemed safe to look up again, there was indeed a bright red helicopter parked in front of us, on a little circle in the square that I never particularly noticed before. It is probably not coincidence that it was a perfect landing target for the helicopter—not that that made it easy; the skill of the pilots is amazing.

By the time I cleared enough grit out of my eyes to open them fully, the flying doctor and paramedic had already slipped out of the helicopter and out of sight. Several people wearing high visibility jackets marked “Heritage Advisor” appeared, people who I’ve never noticed but are presumably always in the Square advising tourists about heritage, with another duty being seeing to any sudden helicopter landings in the Square. They whipped out something like police tape and tried fairly unsuccessfully to tie it to fountains and any other anchor they could find.

They were perfectly genial people who didn’t need to move us back--we had all been cleared by the flying filth--but I suppose they were concerned about hundreds of tourists rushing to photograph each other smiling in front of the helicopter, getting in the way when it tried to take off, or climbing onto it whilst parked and dangling from its main rotor. (I say ‘main rotor’, but the MD902 Explorer twin engine helicopter has only one and no tail rotor, which is apparently better in an urban environment--less chance of chopping up people, perhaps.) This was a medical emergency, after all.

In fact, that was my primary thought—that it was awful that someone must be seriously hurt nearby. One of the Heritage Advisors trying to tie tape to us said there was an incident at Leicester Square, possibly in the Tube, which made me think the medics had disappeared so quickly because they were taken there by a London Ambulance vehicle or motorcycle, as that would otherwise be a fair run with all their heavy gear when they’d need to be fresh enough to save someone’s life on arrival (although I know they often do exactly that).

A fellow spectator on what I gather was a trendy bike with low wheels appeared beside me, saying he had assumed it was some sort of stunt since the helicopter had ‘Virgin’ emblazoned across it (and Richard Branson is rather stunt mad), but I explained that Virgin was a sponsor of the Air Ambulance, which is a charity. The charity operates London’s only Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS), which depends on public donations and which I gather is currently principally financed through Santander Corporate Banking with the support of Virgin. The service has been operating for 24 years, providing “pre-hospital care to victims of serious injury throughout London”, according to its website, carrying “a Senior Trauma Doctor and a specially trained Paramedic, essentially bringing the hospital to the patient. In serious cases the patient may not always be able survive the distance to hospital so operations need to be performed on scene.”

Based on top of the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, they have just moved to a new helipad on the refurbished building, now as high up as the Big Ben clock tower. The helicopter can reach anywhere within the M25 in 12 minutes, and since the service was founded, trauma deaths in London and on the M25 are said to have fallen by more than 50%. Since 6 March, the helicopter has even been carrying emergency blood supplies so transfusions can be administered at the scene of an accident.

I know about the Air Ambulance because I recall watching a BBC3 series some years ago called Trauma, where a camera crew followed the team to emergencies in the helicopter during the day and in the rapid response cars at night or when the helicopter was being repaired. It was gripping stuff. I watched the doctors anesthetise a patient and slice open his throat at a London road junction as police officers held a make-shift curtain around them to shield them from the gawping crowd, and perform roadside thoracotomies (open chest surgery) usually performed by a cardiothoracic surgeon in an operating theatre. Can you imagine the pressure on the lone HEMS doctor out on the road? Ably assisted by a remarkable paramedic, of course, but it’s not the same as a full medical team of specialists in a safe and sterilised environment.

I also watched the show as an injured motorcyclist began fighting off the people who were trying to save him, which I came to learn as a danger sign that the patient had suffered brain damage, which is when people retreat to such basic bestial behaviour. I watched, irritated with injured children in fairly inaccessible fields who refused to board the air ambulance that was their quickest and safest route to hospital, simply because they were frightened of flying. So they would have to travel by land ambulance, as the last thing the helicopter crew wanted in a confined space in the air was someone hysterical fighting them.

I also watched through my fingers as a very young but otherwise fanciable doctor comforted someone who had been initially unsuccessful in his suicide leap in front of a tube train and was frightfully injured but caught under the train so the HEMS doctor had to crawl under it as the fire service tried to lift it a bit so he could assess the patient and administer desperately needed pain relief. I seem to recall that he chatted to his patient while enormous numbers of emergency services workers spent ages either trying to free him or waiting to help him, but sadly the man died where he fell. Yet the doctor would have to get up from that and continue to respond to other calls that needed him.

Remembering that incident sent a chill down my spine as I noticed two men clad in red, looking like astronauts who had landed way off course as in that Specsavers advert, eventually return to the helicopter from the east side of the Square, watched by several motorcycle paramedics who presumably had brought them back from Leicester Square. They had no patient on a stretcher with them, and I worried that it had been an awful situation like that one I’d seen on Trauma. I said to the man beside me that perhaps the lack of patient meant he or she wasn’t as badly injured as originally thought, that they recovered or were fine to go in a normal ambulance, and I hoped more than believed that to be true. (The service tweeted afterwards to say that they don’t always carry a patient, that the Air Ambulance is just used to get the medical expertise to the patient quickly. I will focus on that being the case. You can follow them on Twitter here: @TheHelilpad .)
We watched as the pilot opened the boot of the helicopter and shoved in some gear, the same way we mere mortals do with a car. They donned their white crash helmets (would they help if the three-tonne hunk of metal dropped from the sky? Or is it to battle the rotor blades if their proximity were miscalculated?), and one stepped away from the helicopter to assess the situation as someone might guide a car driver who was parallel parking, saying “You’re clear on this side.” That seemed reasonable until I realised that he could hardly join them after they took off, leaping into the air and grabbing the landing skids like Superman or a Bond villain. He managed to join them just before lift off.
I warned the cyclist standing by me to protect himself, given the incredible shock of filth that the helicopter had dumped on us on its way down, but it seemed that that first episode had tidied up Trafalgar Square to such a degree that very little dirt was left to be dislodged by the rotor blades spinning this time. (I think most of it was in my hair). The rotor revved up quickly, and as soon as the helicopter began to lift off, it seemed to dart to a great height in an instant. “It’s like a Harrier Jump Jet,” I stupidly remarked to the Stranger Cyclist, and he agreed. And then it was off, the Heritage Advisors removed the tape that had pretty much blown away and they disappeared, and Trafalgar Square went back to normal. People passing just afterwards had no idea what they'd missed.

I was accustomed, thanks to the television series, to seeing the remarkable work of these medics, and here
was an example of the tremendous skill of the pilots, too. The service will apparently be featured in another television show in June called Real Rescue, presented by former BBC Breakfast sports presenter and Strictly Come Dancing winner Chris Hollins. Make sure you watch it, as if this show is even a patch on Trauma, we viewers will be lucky. I feel the programme did a lot to promote the incredible emergency services as well as the Royal London and A&E departments generally (as Helicopter Heroes also now promotes other air ambulance services). Another fly-on-the-wall programme featuring the London Air Ambulance called Medic One can still be seen on YouTube, and it’s worth having a look. And if you can, perhaps donate even a small something to this amazing service that saves lives daily.

It had been interesting watching everyone’s reaction to the sudden appearance of this bright red bird in a space previously ruled by pigeons, and there are many better photographs than mine on the Internet, as obviously many tourists and, judging by the kit they were carrying, some professional photographers moved around the Square to get the best angle. I only had a little camera I keep in my handbag that is marginally better than the appalling camera on my phone, and I stayed put and chatted to Stranger Cyclist, who reminded me of several cultured people I knew.

Perhaps I’d mentioned that I’d been heading for the National Gallery, which led to talk of the Royal Academy exhibitions, and I mentioned how I’d been lucky to see the superb David Hockney exhibition when a company kindly gave me a free pass after a job interview with them. He mused about whether it was some sort of assessment centre exercise, and whether they quizzed me on my favourite paintings afterwards. They didn’t, but it did start me wondering about whether the pass had some GPS monitor so they could note down which paintings I spent more time in front of, and then judge me in the same way they might evaluate my handwriting or the answers to a ridiculous psychometric test (I used to like those, but the last one I took—given by my former employer—had questions such as “Chose which of the following best describes you: (a) you have red hair, (b) your favourite colour is red, or (c) you always see red.” So I had little faith in its ultimate judgement.)

Stranger Cyclist asked if I’d seen the RA’s Johan Zoffany exhibit, which I haven’t, but which was recommended by a friend who, like Stranger Cyclist, had recently retired. Stranger Cyclist (which I accidentally just typed as ‘’Strangler Cyclist” but he seemed safe) described to me The Tribuna of the Uffizi , which amazingly includes a reproduction of over a dozen works at the Uffizi museum in Florence, which I feel I’ve seen—perhaps at Windsor? (It took me years to learn there is a breath-taking collection of works by all the greats at Windsor Castle.)

Stranger Cyclist also referred to a self-portrait in the exhibition that showed some condoms hanging in the background as Zoffany prepared for a fancy dress ball. (I note that the Times Literary Supplement classics editor, Mary Beard, as a result of seeing this painting posed the question “How many condoms did Zoffany paint?”  Who would have thought the controversy now was about quantity?)

I later mentioned in an email to my newly retired friend that the exhibition had also been recommended by another person who had seemed to be a sensible intellectual type, despite being a stranger I’d met in Trafalgar Square who mentioned condoms. Said friend made me laugh when he replied that he was “relieved to hear that at last you are talking to strange men in Trafalgar Square about condoms. You really should have done this earlier.”

I only do so on occasions when bright red helicopters land at my feet in famous London landmarks. And then, always. Until next time….

Monday, 6 February 2012

London Wetlands Centre's Winter Wonderland

On London Tonight on Friday, photographer Iain Green was shown demonstrating how best to take photographs on an icy day at the amazing London Wetlands Centre in Barnes. A fortnight ago, I was there photographing some of the same subjects on just such a day, but whereas he’s a talented photographer whose work turned out beautifully, I barely know how to switch on the camera. I have little concept of how to translate what I’m seeing in my mind into something impressive on display (I can’t say on paper; most of my photos end up as a slide show on my screen saver, which cheers me up as I love to see animals). I take snapshots, not photographs, to remind me of walking around somewhere wonderful on a pleasant , and that’s enough for now.

One day I will do as I’ve long intended and blog generally about visiting the sublime London Wetlands Centre (LWC), particularly as I still retain ‘outsider’ status despite being a member for over a year, since I get there rarely and know nothing about birds. I always say I’m not a birdwatcher; I’m a wildlife noticer. But I love going there for the amazing peace it offers, and given that just seeing mallard ducks on a park pond or starlings whistling in my tree thrills me, just because I adore seeing wildlife, it’s fantastic to find a spot where one is guaranteed to see plenty of it. Plus I figure if I keep taking pictures, one day I’ll figure it out, the theory being that practice makes acceptable. I will never be a committed wildlife photographer who lies in a frozen field for 20 hours in hopes of getting that perfect photograph of some rarely spotted creature. I like my creature comforts and can barely bend to bird-level to photograph the ones walking around thanks to my bad back. (I can bend down there; I’d just to remain down there until some kind passer-by passed by and offered to pick me up.) I don’t mind taking pictures with my unimpressive minor zoom lens of distant common ducks when I’m sitting in the comfort of one of their hides, and I tend to get shy and self-conscious around anyone who knows what they’re doing. But I just love being at the Centre and hearing the sublimely peaceful whisper of the breeze in the wheat-like fields with an orchestra of beautiful birdsong playing in the foreground. (One comes to zone out the sound of the planes flying overhead and the whistles from the nearby rugby ground, the latter of which rather adds to the atmosphere anyway).

But before I get to a sort of beginner’s blog to visiting the LWC and the true joys every step of the way, I thought I’d just put up a few of my snapshots from that icy January day, if only to show you the difference between what little I can manage when simply preserving a memory of the moment compared to similar subjects taken by professionals like Iain Green or the many mind-blowingly talented amateurs who regularly visit the Centre. I’m not just doing my part to make them look good, as they don’t need it. But maybe if I post a few of my mediocre snaps of a splendid day, it will show anyone reading that they can see some cute and pretty things on their visit and come away happy even if they’re ignorant and untalented as I am. It’s a great place to be. These aren’t my best photographs from the LWC ever (and there are many worse!) but they might give a slight impression of the loveliness of even an icy day at the London Wetlands Centre.

The ice, of course, brings the chance of seeing many apparently holy birds walking on water, like these coots. I think they must be the Torvill and Dean of the coot world, as they were very much at home on the ice together. Unlike Torvill and Dean, the ice seems to make them downright frisky.

This next photograph is a bit of abstract art, or a cold coot bathing in golden waters. It does not quite have the synchronised swimming look of water ballet that so many ducks give their audience, but I found it entrancing just the same.

Another enchanting episode repeated at the Centre is the sight of swans flying. The sound of swans flying is unreal; their flapping wings sound like the whirring of machinery in an industrial revolution factory, or the hum of a sleek classic car when it was a high-tech novelty. More than that, it puts one firmly in mind of aviation, which rather makes sense. Seeing such huge but graceful birds plough roughly into the water is another joy. They look as though they’re struggling to balance, trying out their new angels’ wings for a maiden flight, practically calling out ‘Whoa! Who-a!’ as their feet hit the water.
Their take-offs can seem just as unwieldy—but then even when we fly, take-offs and landings are the trickiest part of the flight. In this picture, I feel I should call ‘beware of low-flying objects!’ to what I think is a herring gull. It was like watching one of those films where the hapless protagonist is about to be run over by a lorry, and you have to hope that if he keeps his head down, it might just pass safely over him. (I’m guessing this big, brownish gull who was lone amongst the smaller black-headed gulls is a herring gull wearing his winter coat. His face is much more noble than I expected; he looks quite wizened. I wondered if he were a bit lonely, one of his kind amongst strangers who might have been thinking “You’re not from around these parts, are you?” and shutting him out. (No, I’m not really mad with Dr Doolittle Disease).

From huge to little….I saw a Little Grebe (and an astonishing number of other birds) on my first trip to the LWC and had never even heard of one before. Really, I first saw a little Little Grebe, as its mother was at the time underwater, diving for food for its….uh, grebeling? Dabchick chick? They wore flashier colours then, and I find them charming, so sweetly delicate, and they dive for so long whenever I raise my camera that I assume they’re trying to shake me off like celebrities try to ditch the paparazzi. Seriously, I think they are. If celebrities bothered to invest in scuba gear, far fewer photos of them looking fat in a bikini would show up in The Daily Mail.

Tufted Ducks are another charming group that always look like they’re shooting me an annoyed look. They remind me of Looney Tunes’ Daffy Duck, in which case perhaps the Tufted Ducks are just a bit self-conscious about their lisp and staring me down before I pick on them, which I would never do. But such a tough glare could easily give one Anatidaephobia. Though I still think it’s cute.

This blurry chap on the left is, I believe, a Water Rail. I caught him (insofar as I did) by pointing my not-outstandingly-long-zoom lens towards a very distant slightly bulbous blob amidst the far away reeds that I thought there was the tiniest chance could be the Jack Snipe that I had been looking at from a different hide (thanks to kind souls welcoming me when I arrived and letting me look through their scope to watch it bob). My cheapo binoculars don’t bring things much closer, so I snapped away on the off chance and was surprised to see the Water Rail when I got home. Which is grand because I didn't know I'd seen one. I know little about birds so I could be wrong, but it’s blurrily purdy, innit?
Similarly blurry but with little excuse is this group pruning session of a Wigeon with Eiders either side—not a great photo (on the right), but the symmetry somehow soothes me.
Starkly in better focus is this duck that, frankly, I know nothing about, but isn’t it xtraordinary? What lovely feathers, despite it being an odd combination of colours and patterns, like a deliberately clashing outfit from the 80s. Mostly it makes me think of handing a duck colouring book to a little girl who then, rather than boringly filling in the lines with typical mallard colours or just brown as many children might, instead applies all her favourite colour crayons and patterns and produces this gloriously different duck. As though this duck standing on that bit of 
wood has been coloured in beautifully by Mother Nature’s little girl.

Another beautiful exotic duck that I believe permanently lives at the Centre is this one illustrating the expression “like water off a duck’s back.” This next mystery resident duck on the left always seems to have a silly but intensively innocent look on its face, which I know is a weird thing to say about something that cannot smile. But maybe acting teachers should show this to their students when they’re trying to achieve an innocent look.

Speaking of exotic ducks, this is a bad picture of a Mandarin duck, which must officially be one of the most incredibly beautiful specimens of water fowl. I mean, just look at it; it looks as though it were designed by Ferrari….or Gucci. The picture’s poor because I didn’t catch his reflection, but at the time I was more interested in capturing the funky way his neck feathers looked as he repeatedly plunged his beak into the water (left), but failed to get a good one at the right angle. Still, just admire that beauty. Gorgeous, isn’t he? Amazing what nature creates.

Still with ducks, I must say that as an American, I never understood the fashion for hanging three ornamental flying ducks on your wall, as one of the old Coronation Street characters did, but seeing the real thing against a blue sky can almost explain its charm.  

Moving to geese, I feel oddly like there’s something sassy about how Egyptian Geese walk away, like a petulant girl storming off. Note that I said sassy, not sexy. I have no duck fetish. I worry that, if I add that I love their colouring, particularly their beautiful tail feathers, this whole paragraph looks a bit disturbing. I promise you I have no sick Owen-from-Vicar-of-Dibley-style love of ducks; I just think they’re lovely as I think trees are lovely.
Less pretty and even hard to make out is this ominous Poe crow, looking as though it morphed magically into a demon on a stark branch above. Okay, so it’s just a bad picture, but it looks better when I see it as part of my bleak Edgar Allen Poe world on a desolate winter’s day.

I had been hoping that such a day, might bring one of the bitterns out into view, as it might need to step out onto the ice to reach some food, but they were content to stay tucked away in the reeds. On my previous visit, however, I managed finally to see a bittern—two, actually—thanks entirely to others. I always pictured birdwatchers as being secretive and not wanting to share if they’d caught sight of something special, other than bragging about it later perhaps. The reality I’ve found at the Centre is that people are kind and welcoming and will gladly offer to show you something wonderful in their scope.

On that day, I’d been walking towards the Wildside area of the Centre, I believe in hopes of seeing a Water Vole at last, when a lovely volunteer stopped me on the path and asked if I’d seen the Bittern from the Observatory. Had she not done so, I would never have gone there. Indeed, it took me several visits before I was even aware of it, and it made me feel a bit like an airport departure lounge, with its giant glass wall overlooking the main lake, but feeling far from the best action. And when I did pop in on my way back and still saw nothing, a kind woman upstairs suggested that I look through her scope, which was fixed on the elusive bittern.

Although it was so far away I could barely make out with the naked eye its shape against the reeds, I aimed my camera at it rather pointlessly but took a few shots just in case, and of course can barely make out the blurry result [see right], but I’m happy to have the memento.

The friendly sharing continued when another chap who’d joined us called to a couple downstairs to invite them to come watch the bittern, which led to a member of staff directing the gentleman, who was in a wheelchair, to a hidden lift (most of the Centre is wonderfully accessible) as we shunted things about to help him view the bird. He and his wife then showed me on their camera photographs they’d just taken a Water Vole near the Dulverton Hide, and although the sun was setting, I decided to rush there to try my best to finally see Ratty.

I had no luck, of course, and decided on my way back to the Visitor’s Centre and exit to pop into the Dulverton Hide even though it was surely too dark to see anything, thinking I’d just glance out the window at the emptiness and leave. However, two silhouetted gentlemen were in their helping each other find something they were straining to see—a second Bittern. They decided to include me but said things like, “Do you see that sand bank with the Egyptian Geese on it?” which made me panic and think, “Oh no—they assume I know what we’re talking about!” But then I realised I do know what Egyptian Geese look like now, thanks to my visits to the Centre. (Yes, they’re the sassy ones).
I watched it until it got quite dark, and then walked back with the remaining kind bittern-spotting soul, the only disadvantage being that we chatted as we passed through the gift shop, where I’d intended to use my coupon for a free book that I’d been given when I renewed my membership, so I thought I’d leave it ‘til next time, unaware there was an expiry date, 16 days before my next visit. So humph. But it was worth it. Not just for watching a bittern until late, but because the warm, chummy, can-we-help-you nature of the volunteers and fellow visitors shines over that disappointment. I was a bit intimidated when I first went to the Centre, seeing people who clearly know what they’re doing wandering around with telescopes on tripods and cameras that cost more than a car. But I’ve found that most knowledgeable people there really welcome the chance to share and don’t mind at all if you’re a novice.

Finally, this golden blur shows no cute birds nor any of the ice on my recent visit, but it always makes me think of cereal adverts for some reason, and its inclusion here is solely because I’m a bit peckish. Mind you, it also reminds me of the variety of mini-terrains in the wetlands centre, this reedbed area being one of the most peaceful, I find, because of the breeze in the wheat (or wheat-like grasses). Even on busier days, I seem to pass few people here, and I adore its tranquillity. Its charm never disappears, regardless of the season. There is always something fantastic to see at the London Wetlands Centre, be it migrant birds, resident birds (eg innocent ducks or sassy geese), insects like damselflies, as well as frogs, water voles (if you’re lucky) and glorious flora. It’s a marvellous place, even on a freezing day as this one was. I already feel eager for my next visit. There’s still a water vole to be seen…somewhere! 
Incidentally, the London Wetlands Centre occasionally holds wildlife photography workshops by photographers such as the above mentioned Iain Glenn and the outstanding Mark Carwardine, so keep an eye on their events page, sign up for alerts or follow them on Twitter.