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A wander in the Oxfordshire countryside


We were in Oxfordshire for a few days last week mainly because it was my birthday and as a treat Jude the Undergardener arranged for us to visit a garden designed by one of my favourite garden designers, Tom Stuart-Smith. (If you are a regular reader you will already know that!) He had designed a part of a much bigger garden which we discovered included two of our favourite features, meadows and an arboretum. But that is the subject of my next post so you have to wait for that treat!

A mile or two from out hotel was a nursery specialising in herbs (The National Herb Centre) and it had the added benefit of being in farmland to which visitors had access. We did enjoy looking at the huge variety of herbs especially the mints, lavenders and thymes but we mostly wanted to get into that countryside.

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We wandered through wet grassland where even the cut paths were saturated from the heavy overnight rain. As rain still threatened and dark clouds loomed overhead we headed for the woods in the bottom of a valley. We were glad we did as the air was thick with birdsong. It was so loud and there were so many birds there, that it brought back memories of country childhoods where this volume of birdsong resounded everywhere. Sadly it is now rare. So rare that it stopped us in our tracks. Blackbirds, Dunnocks  Wrens, Robins and Song Thrushes. These resident birds provided the main chorus but the solos were performed by the summer visitors, the warblers. Blackcaps, Whitethroats, Chiffchaffs, Wood Warblers and Redstarts.

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A loud buzzing sound emanating from behind a notice on a tree trunk made us stop and investigate. Dark bodied bees were busy around a crack in the bark and in the shelter of the notice. They seemed calm so I moved in close to take a photo and they didn’t seem to mind. However they changed their tune when the camera flash went off, their gentle buzzing sounded more urgent and aggressive so we moved away rapidly.


Leaving the shelter of the wood we were pleased that the rain had stopped and the world looked a lot brighter so we followed a path around the meadows which we discovered were very damp so in patches were covered in that most ancient of plants the Mares Tail, always a sign of damp ground. Anywhere that the ground dipped a pool had formed.

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Between two of these pools a surprise awaited us. Look at the next photo and see if you can work out just what lurks in the greenery.


Have a look at this second view taken a few steps further back and there is a clue.


Yes, here in the soggy ground between two pools the farmer had abandoned a pair of old tractors. The one deep in the undergrowth would never pull a plough to turn the earth but with a little persuasion the second might. The amount of wildlife living in the oldest of the two must have been vast. The bodywork was host to mosses, lichen and algae and spiders had crafted their webs from the wing mirrors. But the biggest surprise of all was that a pair of Bullfinches, surely one of our most colourful native birds were feeding a nest of young within its heart. So there was plenty of life in the old tractor still!

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Of course once we had finished enjoying wandering around the fields we returned to the garden centre for a coffee and to purchase a few choice plants. Who could ask for more?

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A Wander around our Garden in August

Our garden in August is a bright, colourful place full of lush growth, rich scent and so much wildlife to enjoy. Our wild birds are mostly quiet at present as August is the time when they hide away as they go through their annual moult. They have gone to ground and gone silent.

Above our heads however avian activity is busy and exciting. The Swallows and House Martins are feeding up in anticipation of their migration south. The sky is full of them, but the screaching of Swifts is absent as they began their own long journey a few weeks ago. For a few days there is a gap in the sounds – we miss them for their excited calls and aerial displays.

The calls of the young Buzzards can be heard above the Swallows and Martins, as they excitedly search out thermals and discover the joy of riding them. The Peregrines have reappeared now that their breeding season is over so we can watch the adult pairs rising in ever-higher circles until they disappear from view. Our eyes become incapable of seeing them as they become smaller, become dots and are then gone. They have the luxury of far better long distance vision than us – they will see the movement of their prey from hundreds of feet up in the air. A real treat is to spot them as they stoop, travelling down at speeds of over 200 miles per hour with a pigeon in their sights.

Yesterday when deadheading in one of our borders we were surprised by a low-flying, high speed Green Woodpecker who zoomed close to us, just a few feet away. A real treat!

Insect life is flourishing. On any warm bright day a variety of insects can be seen hunting out nectar and pollen. Butterflies, bees and hoverflies are attracted to Buddleias, Alliums, Salvias, Nepetas, Lavenders and Echinops. There are so many Peacock Butterflies around at the moment but you can’t have too many of them. The Holly Blues are much scarcer and flit continuously rarely seeming to settle.

Bees and hoverflies are attracted to our Lavender hedge which borders the lane which passes in front of our garden.

The ponds are full of life with shoals of young fish basking in the shallows, diving Beetles and Boatmen moving up to the surface and back to the bottom regularly. On the surface Pondskaters pace out the length and breadth of the pond surface. Young newts regularly appear at the surface take a gulp of air and drop back down. When Jude the Undergardener nets the duckweed and blanket weed from the pond she catches newts every time. She is delighted with every newt that graces her net. I am convinced that removing the weed is an excuse for her newt catching exploits. In August the majority of newts Jude catches are youngsters.

The front garden is looking good! So much colour! The Hot Border is HOT!

The “Beth Chatto Garden”, our gravel garden, is full of interest with Agapanthus taking centre stage. These Agapanthus were actually bought from the Beth Chattos Gardens nursery.

Early in August the front garden was dominated by yellow – even Jude the Undergardener was wearing yellow – but after a few weeks all the other colours caught up.

In the back garden the growth in our Secret Garden is exuberant to say the least. The foxgloves are going over but the achilleas, lychnis and alliums are still giving us a full performance.

Elsewhere in the borders of the back garden the seedheads of our Snakebark Acer add rich reds, Crocosmias give every shade of yellow, orange and red, Achilleas add subtlety and the spiky Erigeron flowers provide silver.

In the greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers and capsicums are adding sweetness and freshness to the cut-and-come-again mixed leaves of ours summer salads.

The world beyond our garden is changing this month as in our borrowed landscape the hay in the paddock has been cut and baled and the wheat fields turn gold and are being harvested one by one. By the time my September garden wander comes around the skys will seem empty as the Swallows and Martins will be on their way to warmer climes, but the garden will be getting busier with mixed feeding flocks of titmice and Goldcrests, and others of mixed finches.

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A Wander by the River Severn

Shropshire’s largest river is the Severn, one of the most impressive and longest in the UK. We usually walk its banks in our county town of Shrewsbury, for being strongly averse to towns and cities we need the riverside walk as an antidote. But today we decided to go a few miles southwards and find it as it meanders through the beautiful south Shropshire countryside. We parked up near Alveley and ambled our way down towards the river and the woodland on the lower slopes of its valley. The area is a country park jointly maintained by the National Trust and Shropshire Council so there is good parking and a small visitor centre with cafe. But walk a hundred metres or so from the centre and you are right out in the countryside away from signs of civilisation, except for the occasional sound of the steam engines running through the valley on the Severn Valley Railway, the chugging sounds of the engine working hard to get up slopes and the regular hooting as it crosses level crossings.

The track down to the river.

The walk down to the river is a gentle sloping pathway through young woodland interrupted by occasional areas of old industrial landscape which is being reclaimed by mother Nature. Unusual small plants are colonising and tree seedlings only a few inches tall are making inroads into man’s mess. Here a Pied Wagtail deviated from its tail wagging zig zag amble to catch an insect above a clump of tough grass. A true surprise met our eyes – a Black Redstart a bird I had not seen for decades and one Jude had never seen before. They inhabit areas of rubble and human disturbance so this is just perfect hangout for them.

The candle shaped flower cluster of a Horse Chestnut Tree.
New foliage of Oak tinged with bronze.
A view from the path into the wooded valley side.
We choose the left fork.
An impressive modern milestone.
A clearing revealed a view of the Shropshire countryside.

The footbridge over the river is an impressive curving structure, but not as impressive as the views up and down river. The Severn here is wide, tree-lined, deep and slow-moving and home to a family of Mute Swan with six cygnets. We did not spot the keenly anticipated Kingfishers, but that was the only disappointment of the day.

A rather smart bridge carries the path over the Severn.

Once over the bridge we entered woodland, good native hardwood woodland. Here the only sound was our footsteps and bird song and calls. The unpleasant mechanical rasp of Pheasants permeated the trees, but we concentrated on the tuneful songs of Robin, Thrush, Willow Warbler, Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Garden Warbler.

The path turns into the darkness of the wooded valley side.
Flowering plants took advantage wherever light shone through.
Beautiful woodland light.

A shaft of sunlight pierced the valley side.

On the slopes Jays in their smart plumage of pinks, greys and highlights of blue, fed voraciously on acorns and beech mast. They were over-confident and took little notice of our intrusion into their territory as groups of seven or so foraged on the leaf littered slope.

The path became a tunnel of trees.

At one time this valley was the centre of industry and clues still appear now and again as the woods are explored. Surprising man-made artefacts appeared as contradictions to the gentle beauty of the art of Mother Nature.

A sign of past industrial activity.
Signs of an old trackway alongside the path.
Some plants choose to grow on the rubble slopes of old industry.
Light pierced through the trees from the nearby clearing.
Looking from the clearing back into the woodland.

We took advantage of the sunshine in the clearing with its conveniently placed bench. We listened to bird song and watched Blackcaps as they flitted amongst the tree tops. They stopped and perched occasionally to give us a short performance of their enjoyable song. The cerise-breasted  Bullfinch caught our eye as he hovered alongside the clock seedhead of a Dandelion, until he grasped a seed in his beak took it to a low branch of a Hawthorn. He enjoyed it, unaware that two people were watching him.

Sunshine lights up the clearing and invites us to picnic.
Magical light through the trees.
The Severn glimpsed through clumps of Comfrey plants.

As we followed our path back down to the riverside we noticed a change in wildflower species. Here Comfrey dominated and filled the open ground between the willows and alders and our track took us through lush grassed areas. Kestrels and Sparrowhawks hunted along the riverside slopes causing consternation to the nesting Blackbirds, Thrushes and Warblers.

The cotton wool like mass on the willow confused us. Was it hiding caterpillars or young spiders?

In the depth of the shadow under the trees we spotted this Badger Sett.
A glimpse of Shropshire countryside over the river.
Back to the bridge.
The gentle climb back up the valley side to the car park provided plenty of benches to rest on and admire the views.

In the wooded edge of the picnic site back near the car park we found these amazing wood carvings representing the wildlife of the area.

The carvings emphasised what a special place we had just explored. We enjoyed the changing light as we moved in and out of the woods, the variety of flowers and birds and the joy of walking alongside our local river

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A walk in the grounds of “The Secret Hills”

The Secret Hills visitors centre is situated in the small market town of Craven Arms a half hour drive from home. A Monday morning visit to the dentist took us to Church Stretton half way to Craven Arms, so to celebrate us both being given a clean bill of health we decided we deserved a coffee at the Secret Hills.

The visitor centre itself is an interestingly shaped building with a curving roof topped with greenery. It was one of the earliest green roofs. The inside features a library and coffee shop with occasional displays of art and crafts as well as exhibitions to celebrate all that make the South Shropshire Hills so special.

As well as a visitor centre the Secret Hills has wonderful, varied outside spaces which afford the local community and visitors the chance to explore meadows and  copse and walk alongside a small river and a pool. but there are also surprises wherever one goes.

The Undergardener and I began our visit in our usual way by visiting the coffee shop to enjoy a cappuccino and latte respectively. But join us as we slowly amble around the acres outside.

We ambled slowly through a young sloping woodland of coppiced Hazels, whose leaf buds were bursting the tangiest green. The trail took us across a rough area of Teasles and tough grasses and led us to the River Onny, which in this section is a calm, slow moving stream.

Near a bridge carrying the road over the Onny, clumps of Daffodils were in the spotlight of the sun’s rays, affording them a see-through look.

We enjoyed the peaceful, slowly moving waters of the Onny with rashes of seedling Himalayan Balsam and the occasional glossy petaled Celandine growing within the dappled shade of the waterside trees.

After half an hour of gentle rambling, we left the Onny and wandered across a meadow where the sticky buds of  recently planted Horse Chestnut trees were coming into leaf in one corner and as we were about to leave the field, in the opposite corner we came upon a community clay oven, looking like a giant pot. It’s domed clay top was carved with spiral patterns, like the shells of a Ramshorn Snail.

The huge sticky buds of the Chestnut Tree look and feel as if they are coated in treacle, and as they open the green of the fresh leaves is bright as a Golden Delicious Apple.

A bridge across a dried-up stream invited us into a wood of spindly trees.

We crossed the wooden bridge into the patch of woodland, and beyond it we were in for a surprise for we spotted two pieces of sculpture in the trees. so it really is true what the old children’s song said “If you go down to the woods today you are in for a big surprise”.

We looked at the details, the teazels and spirals of branches, and looked up inside the chimney shapes.

After exploring the sculpture and listening to the Great Tits, Chiffchaffs and Goldfinches calling in the tree tops, we made our way back to a bench on the riverside for a rest. A Dipper flew rapidly only inches above the water and passed just below our feet. These are beautiful birds like fat Blackbirds with white bibs. They feed around the rocks in shallow fast-moving streams where they watch from rocks constantly dipping up and down, but this one moved so fast and we didn’t see it stop to feed. On the opposite bank of the river tall trees grew thickly on a steep slope. Here we watched Nuthatches, Treecreepers and Great Spotted Woodpeckers feeding frantically and flying from tree to tree. But the real treat was the view of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, a very small black and white woodpecker which is now so scarce in the UK.

After resting our legs we aimed for the bridge that crosses the Onny where it becomes shallower and more rapid. Here the Onny took on the guise of a upland stream. From the bridge we spotted more Dippers and a Grey Wagtail, before moving on across the corner of a field where a stile showed us the way into the small Nature Reserve. We watched a pair of Red Kite soaring over the tops of the tallest trees. We made our way through the wood on narrow muddy tracks until we found the river once again. Following its banks we returned to the visitor centre dropping in on the community allotments on our way. Here tiny plots of land are available to local residents where they grow vegetables.

The Secret Hills is an amazing community resource for the market town of Craven Arms and a special day out for visitors.

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A Canalside Ramble, There and Back. Part Two, Back.

Suitably refreshed we set off back along the canal to re-trace our steps. It is always good to do this as things look so different and there are different things to see that were missed on the way. The view below is a typical canalside scene with the barge, the canal workers cottage and the lift bridge.

We particularly noticed the remnants of ironwork and machinery once important to the working of the canal but their commercial uses are now long-gone. They are now used by barges as part of the new leisure industry, as canals are once again coming to life, and they create interesting patterns and shapes along the waterside for photographers to spot.

Half way back and a deserved break found us sitting on the stumps of coppiced Alders. This little coppice of Alders was alive and bustling with bird life. We heard their calls and songs and watched them flitting amongst the branches. Lots more Chiffchaff and Willow Warblers, Blue, Great and Long Tailed Tits. Their gentle songs were interrupted by the alarm calls of Blackbirds as Buzzards flew overhead. Those tiny songsters the Wrens sang with gusto as they moved rapidly low in the undergrowth. The real entertainers though were the two birds of the tree trunk, the Treecreeper and the Nuthatch. The little mouse-like Treecreeper flew between trees landing low down the trunks and climbed upwards searching the bark for insects, whereas the more burly and more colourful Nuthatch landed higher up and climbed downwards head first.

Wildlife today kept disappearing into holes. Blue Tits disappeared into their nest holes on the rotten branches of trees, Red Tailed Bees disappeared into holes in tree trunks low to the ground, Long Tailed Tits into the tiny holes in their neat spherical nests and squirrels into their dreys.

As we neared the end of our waterside walk we were startled by loud screechings emanating from the top of a clump of trees. The arrival of an adult Heron was all we needed to realise that this terrible cacophony was caused by hungry young Herons calling from their “rookery”.

On returning to the bridge nearest to the end of the trail the harshness of the light created dark shadows emphasising the beautiful curve of its arch.

From here on we kept coming across that wonderfully coloured butterfly the Brimstone in its bright yellow livery with a hint of lime green. these early adults were searching along the canal side and the hedges bordering the toll paths searching for the flowers of Dandelion and Cowslip. It was impossible to photograph one because they never stay still. They fidget and flit! But they glowed in the sun, such brilliance of colour.

The canal narrowed the closer we got towards the finish of our walk, as the reeds closed in on either side, leaving a narrow winding ribbon of water. This created interesting reflections of trees and fences on the opposite bank.

We caught sight of this rectangle of sheep’s wool caught on the fencing where a sheep must have been scratching to alleviate an itch.

We discovered a great place to walk and watch wildlife (we recorded 40 species of bird), to listen and appreciate the countryside of our home county, Shropshire. There are so many places still out there awaiting our discovery.

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A Canalside Ramble, There and Back. Part One: There.

Bright sunshine, the purest blue sky and warm, summer temperatures in March! What could be better than a walk near water? So we decided to visit a Shropshire Wildlife Trust reserve with its track taking us along the towpath of one of Shropshire’s many stretches of canal. An easy flat walk on soft grass – so kind to the legs and feet after busy days on the allotment.

We have been members of our county’s Wildlife Trust for about 40 years now and visited their reserves regularly when our children were with us but now they have left home and we have both retired we are enjoying visiting them anew. The walk we chose today was the Prees Branch Canal Reserve, described as a “2 mile long pond”. A Site of Special Scientific Interest because of the rare underwater plants, it is also home to one of Britain’s rarest mammals, the Water Vole. Thus it was with great anticipation that Jude, also known as Mrs Greenbenchrambler, also known as “The Undergardener”, and I climbed the stile into the reserve. The first sound to reach our ears was the loud call of a chicken who had just laid its daily egg.

The Prees Branch Canal was started in the early 1800’s and was intended to be a branch of the Llangollen Canal, but finances ran out so it was never completed. The trail we chose to follow runs alongside the 2 miles that were built and runs to its junction with the Shropshire Union Canal.

Just a few steps into woodland alongside a short dried up section of canal and birdsong filled the air. The most persistent songster was the diminutive warbler, the Chiffchaff. Throughout our day’s walk of almost four miles there was a calling Chiffchaff every 30 metres or so, and these early arrivals sing with such gusto to announce themselves to any females in calling distance. It’s call, the simple repetitive “Chiffchaff” call that gives it its name, was interrupted by the much more tuneful song of its near relative, the Willow Warbler. We saw so many flying from tree to tree or searching out insects in undergrowth.

The habitat in this tree-lined section looked absolutely perfect for the Water Vole but the closest we got to one was hearing the characteristic “plop” as one entered the water from the dried reeds followed by the every increasing circles of ripples. In this area, beneath the bare stems of trees in their dappled shade yellow flowers abounded – Celandine, Dandelion, Marsh Marigold and Pussy Willow. Later a snout popped up through the surface film of the water, and Jude stopped me suddenly and pointed. as it moved towards it we realised that the snout was attached to a frog and not a Water Vole. But we enjoyed admiring the frog’s swimming skills – perfect breast stroke clearly seen in the sparkling clean water.

Leaving the tree-lined section, we entered a much more open stretch where the water was crystal clear. Beneath the surface the green of new Yellow Waterlilies glowed.

Two male Mallards, their green iridescent heads glowing against the sky reflecting blue, paraded up the canal ahead of us. A single Mute Swan bustled from the dried reeds, a blue ring on its leg showing in the clear water. Clean white feathers, orange beak and blue leg ring.

We crossed this open stretch and after passing through an Alder coppice, we reached a busy marina and navigable waters. Narrow boats in all colours, all sizes and from all destinations clustered around moorings. From here on these boats chugged passed us regularly stirring up the silty bed of the canal. They sported a miscellany of names all saying something about their owners, their humour and their interests. Tadpole, Otter, Mouse, Earwig and Maple Leaf, Grace, Ondine, Montgomery, Jubilee Bridge and my favourite Django. That boat owner must be a fellow jazz fan.

Just beyond the marina we found a stile conveniently placed to lean upon, eat bananas and drink coffee and of course rest weary legs.

We passed under bridges which gave us a moment of shade from the sun which was gaining strength by the hour. Each bridge has a name, Waterloo Bridge, Boodles Bridge, Dobson’s Bridge, Starks Bridge, Allimans Bridge or a number. These hump-backed bridges carried narrow country lanes over the canal or tracks that took cattle or sheep from field to field. Under Boodles we were mesmerised by the sight of a Great Diving Beetle swimming powerfully to the water’s surface to collect its bubble of air. This is Britain’s largest beetle and swims with strong legs. It is large and powerful enough to catch and eat small fish called Sticklebacks.

Starks and Allimans were most unusual bridges – Lift Bridges. The trackways were carried over the canals by these low wooden bridges which boatman raise by manually turning a handle. As we approached Starks we watched a barge passing under, a skillful manoeuvre.

We stood on Allimans lift bridge and looked along the canal trying to decide whether we had enough energy in reserve to walk the last straight quarter-mile stretch to the T-junction where our Prees Branch Canal met with the Shropshire Union. It looked too tempting!

So we moved on slowly and here the canal cut straight through marshy land with scrapes and pools. From the towpath we spotted wading birds such as Lapwing and Curlew, and water birds such as Moorhens, Canada Geese and Wigeon Ducks. Squealing and wheeling above them were the ubiquitous Black-headed Gull.

Reaching the T-junction felt great and after crossing Roving Bridge next to Roving Farm, we found a seat! Just reward indeed! There were two benches placed in memory of people who had loved the canal in their lifetimes. We made ourselves comfortable with a coffee and a couple of apples on the bench dedicated to Edith. Thanks Edith we enjoyed your seat. Here we stayed a while enjoying the sounds of birdsong and watching the occasional barge passing along the Shropshire Union. Most cruised slowly and quietly in front of us and their occupants waved or called greetings. But one approached us noisily. We heard the engine and the “sailors” a long way off. The engine was so noisy that the sailors just had to shout to hear each other giving commands and advice. They needed advice as three men in orange fluorescent safety jackets stood on board a tiny tug barge pushing a barge along in front and pulling two behind. The barge snake zigzagged from bankside to bankside and progressed slowly, but provided amusing entertainment.

Quiet returned as they disappeared into the distance and we could appreciate the “yaffling” calls of Green Woodpeckers and the chattering of pairs of Wagtails, both Pied and Grey. Goldfinches and Greenfinches passed over head in pairs and a lone Buzzard wheeled high above.

(Part Two to follow)

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Wildlife Oasis

Whilst gardening today I was aware of so much wildlife around us even this late in the year. The bird feeding stations were unusually busy and birds moved though the borders searching for insects and seeds. Nuthatches have returned this year after a three-year absence and the blackcaps have arrived for the winter. The mixed titmice flocks lead by the Long Tails visit regularly and bring the garden to life. There are still insects around and the occasional bee and wasp. The Field Voles and Shrews make forays into the borders in search of their meals. It has not taken a great deal of effort to encourage our wildlife but certainly benefit from seeing and hearing it all around us whenever we are in the garden, so why are there not nature reserves on every spare patch of land in town and country? Look out for a future blog about our wildlife gardening efforts.

When on holiday in Dorset in the early autumn we were amazed by the RSPB reserve in Weymouth,  Radipole, which is a true wildlife oasis in this busy seaside town. It is a wonderful place! So much nature just where you expect to see very little. We were treated to sightings of kingfisher, hobby, marsh harrier, little egret, snipe, reed bunting and warblers aplenty.

We found the walks around the reserve easy as they were flat and comfortable and refreshments were at hand via the bountiful blackberry bushes alongside the tracks. One section of the track is bordered with buddlejas specially planted for butterflies and wildflowers abound.

The reserve is home to rarities such as bittern, bearded tit and cettis warbler as well as many species of wader, duck and warblers such as sedge and grasshopper. As well as the birds otter are regularly spotted. The huge variety of species here is due to the variety of habitat which include lagoon and reedbed.

And all this is found alongside busy town roads, bustling junctions and retail parks. We thought we were lost when we found ourselves in a town car park until we spotted the thatched roof of the little visitors’ centre right at the far end. The welcome is so warm – all RSPB centres give a warm welcome to their visitors but the welcome here is warmer than the norm. The volunteers are full of useful information and will talk you through recent sightings and the best places to get good views. We arrived in a heavy downpour but enjoyed a good cup of coffee a chat with a volunteer and a view over the lagoon from the centre’s huge viewing window. We had a brilliant day and can recommend it to anyone visiting the South West.