The Rare Breeds Show

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We had another fantastic day at the Rare & Traditional Breeds show on Sunday! The show takes place each year at the Weald & Downland Museum in Sussex, and it’s the perfect outing for anyone who loves rare breed animals and rural life. Last year we took our youngest kid Sorrel to the show, and this year we took Sorrel (now grown up!) with her two male kids Hops and Burdock.

It was also a great opportunity to catch up with our fellow members of the English Goat Breeders’ Association, dedicated to the promotion and preservation of the English goat breed. English goats are a rare breed in Britain, and we are lucky enough to have six of them at the farm where I work. They are a great dual purpose breed for milk and meat (although we don’t eat ours!), so if you’re interested in introducing a goat to your family or smallholding, this breed is a great choice.

We also bought a brand new Manx Loaghtan ram to refresh our flock! He’s a pedigree yearling called Norman, and is very handsome. Sorrel and Burdock each won 3rd prize in their categories, although Hops was a bit naughty and won 4th. Nevertheless, I am proud of them all and look forward to another lovely day next year!

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Carving a Spoon

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Since building my own coracle in May, I’ve become hooked on trying heritage crafts. I discovered an organisation called the Heritage Crafts Association, who have published a Red List of traditional crafts in danger of dying out. So with my coracle complete, I thought it was time to try a new heritage craft – SPOON CARVING.

The word spoon is derived from the Old English word spon, meaning a chip of wood or horn carved from a larger piece. In Britain, archaeological evidence suggests that Iron Age, Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Viking people all used wooden spoons, the latter two being particularly great woodworkers. On our farm we have an Anglo-Saxon longhall, a magnificent demonstration of the intricate joints and techniques devised by our European ancestors. Our treewright Darren built the hall, and also owns a piece of ancient woodland that he manages for wildlife and sustainable materials. From here, he found me a chunk of green ash with which to start my spoony adventure.

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The key to carving is sharp tools and soft, green wood. I sharpened one of the axes we already have at the farm, but decided to buy my own straight knife and hook knife from Mora, a Swedish brand of extremely high quality. I used local ash as it was readily available, but lime, pine and birch are also great.

The first step was to draw a spoon onto the wood, to use as a rough guide when hacking merrily away. Then, I used the axe to chip away at the sides until I had a vague spoon shape that I could start whittling with my knives.

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I reached a point where the axe was just too large and clunky to start shaping the spoon, and then switched to my straight knife. This thing was brand new and SHARP so it took me a while to get used to the technique, but once I did it was unbelievably satisfying. Each cut would ease off a smooth sliver of wood, leaving a glassy finish behind.

I whittled away until the spoon outline was much sleeker and my hunk of wood actually looked like a spoon! Then – time for the hook knife.

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After numerous YouTube videos showing me different techniques of using a hook knife, I started mastering the ‘vegetable peeler’ and ‘twist’ effect. The hook knife is a brilliant little device, but trying to find the perfect biting point took me some practice. Eventually, each slice made a tasty scraping sound as I started shaping the bowl, and finally I had hollowed out my spoon.

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The last step was just to sand it down and oil it! I decided to carve a wobbly handle so the overall wobbliness would look more intentional. It’s not the most elegant or slender of spoons, but I’ve decided it will make a perfect ladle for lentil salads. The whole process was incredibly satisfying and I am completely addicted. Watch this space!

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In the Footsteps of Coleridge

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This piece was originally published on the Wordsworth Trust blog

We had gorged on sticky ginger loaf until, feeling plump, we stepped out into the garden to admire the garlic mustard and bluebells drooped in the April air. Through the tall grasses we followed a pathway to the back of the garden where Samuel Taylor Coleridge himself sat reluctantly beneath that lime-tree bower, his prison. Here we perched too, immobilised not by an injured foot, as his poor wife Sara had burnt him with spilled milk, but by contented bellies filled with coffee and cake. But while Coleridge was forced to stay behind as his friends wandered the Quantock Hills nearby, today we had other plans.

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In the lime tree bower

Easter has never been a biblical time for me; I have a mild interest in religious stories, but find infinitely more thrills in spiced buns and simnel cake. For the Easter weekend we decided to make use of the bank holiday and slip away to Somerset, where we had already completed our rounds of the cheese and cider shops in Cheddar. That morning, after a bristling wild swim in the Kings Sedgemoor river, we headed west to Nether Stowey and Coleridge Cottage, a National Trust property in which Coleridge lived for three years and wrote some of his finest works, including ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’. It is also the gateway to the Coleridge Way, a 51-mile walk across the Quantocks and Exmoor that was a favourite rambling route for Coleridge and Wordsworth; they walked extensively through the district and composed many of their ‘Lyrical Ballads’ while reflecting on the surrounding landscape.

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The Quantocks

We couldn’t quite manage the 51-mile route before work on Tuesday morning, so instead chose a circular section that within three hours would lead us back to the warm campervan and kettle. We crept out of Nether Stowey and made our way westward through tangled conifers whose clawing branches blocked out the world above us; after a while the track plateaued onto a vast hilltop, carpeted with thick heather and gorse. No flowers bloomed here; the gorse had been burnt as part of a heathland conservation scheme, and now stood dark and twisted against a slate sky. To the north we watched gulls drift over the Bristol Channel.

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Bluebells in Coleridge’s garden

It is thought that in a marshy copse near our walking place, Coleridge, William and Dorothy Wordsworth took a nocturnal ramble that inspired Coleridge’s poem ‘The Nightingale’:

’Tis the merry Nightingale
That crowds and hurries, and precipitates
With fast thick warble his delicious notes,
As he were fearful that an April night
Would be too short for him to utter forth
His love-chant, and disburthen his full soul 
Of all its music!

While nightingales may have been abundant a century or so ago, they are now marked on the Red List of endangered British birds; their vibrant song, like beads of rain falling onto a lake, has become a rare and precious voice in our landscape. Throughout May the RSPB held a Nightingale Festival across the country to raise awareness of their plight and enable visitors to listen to that same song that once hypnotised Coleridge over two hundred years ago. You can find out more about these events here.

Our route ascended once more to the summit of a barren peak, where we discovered a heap of ashen stones piled together by passing travellers; we dropped down into deciduous woodland and stopped suddenly on the path. Before us, a herd of thirty roe deer crossed cautiously between the trees, alarmed by our footsteps and seeking safer ground. We stood mesmerised as they slipped away into the woods, and continued our journey through until we reached the road that would take us back to the campervan, past thickets of wild garlic and a sleepy herd of cows who licked my hand as we passed. On the road I found a rusted horseshoe, which now rests in the sunlight by our kitchen window.

While landscapes shape and reshape themselves over the centuries, there is something comforting in knowing the paths we walk were once crossed by Coleridge and the Wordsworths two hundred years ago. This corner of Somerset is wild but quiet; the perfect escape from modern life’s drudgery.

The Island

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It’s 29°C in our kitchen today, and while I usually love the warmer weather of southern England, I’ve found myself longing for the raw Scottish air that I enjoyed last week. On Saturday I flew to Glasgow, before travelling by train and ferry to the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. I was booked onto a trip with UK Wildlife Safaris, a tour company run by expert ecologists who would lead me to the wildest corners of the island in search of northern Britain’s most delightful species.

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Oystercatcher surveying the realm

The living quarters stole our attention before any wildlife had a chance. We were sleeping in Torloisk House, an 18th century hunting lodge (with turret!) on a 22,000 acre estate. We half attempted to navigate each of the floors but with every twist and hidden door we surrendered to simple marvelling at the myriad of books, paintings, cut glass cocktail shakers, wooden boxes, stuffed animals and old photographs adorning the rooms. And while the ancient nature of the house meant there were no showers, instead we were treated to deep Edwardian baths heated by the aga, before gathering in the kitchen each evening for iced gin and crisps.

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Torloisk House

Mull is the second largest island of the Inner Hebrides, with a resident population of only 2,800. Archaeologists believe the island has been inhabited since the end of the last Ice Age 8,000 years ago, and Bronze Age people later built menhirs, brochs and a stone circle. There are strange rumours that a Spanish galleon was shipwrecked off the coast of Tobermory, lying abandoned on the seabed laden with gold, but alas! this is yet to be found… Aside from its human residents, the island is also home to a large population of highland cattle and sheep of varying breeds, who enjoy lounging around in the centre of single-track roads.

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Scottish blackface sheep on Iona

One morning we embarked on a boat trip from Ulva ferry port and travelled across the nearby lochs in search of white-tailed eagles. Our skipper had a rather macabre cool box filled with dead fish, which were thrown into the salty waters to attract a pair of eagles nesting on the cliffs nearby. After much squabbling with the local gulls (we tried to distract them with chunks of bread) our eagles plummeted repeatedly to catch the floating fish and head back to their nest. White-tailed eagles are Britain’s largest bird of prey, and can only be found here due to a successful reintroduction programme after they went extinct in the 20th century. We watched them with great joy, and afterwards hopped over to the Boathouse on Ulva where we warmed up with thick potted crab and cider.

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White-tailed eagle on Loch na Keal

The next day we travelled by boat to the uninhabited islands of Staffa and Lunga. Staffa is home to Fingal’s Cave, a magnificent sea cave I’d seen in faded watercolours on the walls of Torloisk. On Lunga, I encountered puffins for the first time and MY GOD I knew they’d be cute but I just wasn’t prepared. Chubby, tubby and curious. We were watching them intently when all of a sudden, I heard the deliciously grating sound of a corncrake in the bracken nearby. We’d visited another island Iona to try and see a corncrake, one of Britain’s rarest birds that looks like a partridge or quail; despite our best efforts, we heard their calls but couldn’t find where they were hiding.

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Smooching puffins on Lunga

Now, on Lunga, I was determined to try again. We followed the path round the bracken patch and listened intently until it was about one metre in front of us… and then KABOOM! Up she flew and headed off to another patch of bracken beyond the hill. I had seen a real corncrake! Not the most exciting view, but a view nonetheless. Full of glee, we vaguely followed her round the corner to an old crofter’s house and, being a self-confessed National Truster, I thought I’d check out the ruin for a taste of the local heritage. The islands are brimming with history, particularly the dark days of the Highland Clearances when poor people were burnt out of their own homes to make way for wealthy landowners. As I stepped out of the croft and back towards the path, I looked down and found three black ducklings in front of me. ‘Ah,’ I thought. ‘Cuties.’ I watched them for a while until they shuffled off into the thicket, and returned to the path. On the way home I told the others what I’d seen and, after much checking of guide books, discovered that they were, of course, a huddle of corncrake chicks. Magical.

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Hebridean landscape

A huge highlight of our trip was searching for otters roaming the banks of the lochs. Mull is one of the best places to watch otters in the wild, and our car journeys around the island were frequently halted to jump out (fully-binoculared) to see them playing, eating, fishing or generally looking squidgy. On the last day we found a large dog otter in the midst of an extensive cleaning session, having consumed something heavily fish-based. He rolled and preened and licked his claws until, after twenty minutes or so, he crept to the edge of the rock and slipped back into the water.

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Dog otter on Loch na Keal

The rest of the week was a thistle-strewn cocktail of seals, buzzards, meadow pipit, linnet, lapwing, common sandpiper, black guillemot, curlew, bats, drizzle, sunshine, fried fish, seaweed and prosecco. It was an absolutely fantastic trip, and one I’d highly recommend to anyone interested in wildlife, landscape and Scottish culture. UK Wildlife Safaris run a number of wildlife tours throughout the year – head to their website and get involved!

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The Wild Beavers of Otterton

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After a delicious Friday in the Chilterns making coracles, last weekend I headed off to the west country to visit my friend Tom, who writes brilliant books about cats and people and landscape. I’d read his piece in the Wildlife Trusts’ magazine about the wild beavers in the River Otter, and he kindly offered to introduce me to them.

After a long walk and a pint of dry cider we headed to the Otter at dusk. Beavers are crepuscular, emerging at dawn and dusk to fulfil their beaverly chores before returning to the lodge to snooze away the daylight. These beavers have a delicious air of mischief about them; they were released anonymously by someone who, like most decent people, longed to see beavers return to our landscape after they were hunted to extinction 400 years ago. DEFRA and a few fishermen made a fuss, but after a little campaigning and scientific argument that they would actually have a positive effect on the environment, they’ve been allowed to stay (for now).

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We waited for the sun to dip away, and a woodpecker on the far bank entertained us with rhythmic taps designed to woo himself a lady friend. Everything was rather golden in the dying light. As darkness fell, we wandered over to the lodge built into the bank, a chaotic pile of sticks much like an aquatic version of a pigeon’s nest. We waited, examining the paw prints and gnawed logs nearby. Quiet. A little longer…

And suddenly, when the world had grown quite dark – PLUNK. Two beavers emerged from their lodge and slipped into the water. If I hadn’t known their species I’d have sworn they were otters, oily coats gliding through the river like mottled boats. The female swam to the bank to fetch Himalayan balsam, which she crunched off and carried back with her to the lodge for dinner. She then slipped off to an overhanging tree, crawled out of the river and sat chubbily on her haunches, grasping leaves from the low branches and gathering them up.

The male disappeared along the river, so we crept along the bank in search of him. I lost sight fairly quickly but, stepping down closer to the water, soon heard a soft growling sound that forced me to look down. There he was! A rather grumpy looking beaver sat 3ft from my boot, blatantly peeved that I had disturbed his evening routine. After a quick photo, during which my camera refused to focus on anything but the long grass, we left him alone and headed home entirely satisfied.

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The rest of the weekend was a cocktail of bees, butterflies, coastal walks and Devon air, with lots of lovely people to meet and pizza to eat. I’ll never forget my evening rendezvous with the beavers, but the highlight was always going to be spending time with Tom’s magical cats, Roscoe and Ralph.

To support the Wildlife Trusts and their amazing work protecting all our wildlife, visit their website here. You can also buy Tom’s next book 21st Century Yokel here, which is out in October.

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Making a Coracle

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‘There’s nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as messing about in boats.’
(Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows)

I LOVE making things. When I was little I made a Pokémon pinball machine, as well as my own cardboard laptop complete with springy keys and interchangeable screens. These days I favour knitting, sewing and pyrography, but I also recently discovered an organisation called the Heritage Crafts Association, who have published a Red List of traditional crafts in danger of dying out. Being in love with all things rural and crafty, I’ve decided to work my way down the list and see which tasty new skills I can master.

When I revealed my plan to my lovely friend Vivian, she was thrilled! She volunteers at the ancient farm where I work, and is already highly skilled in woodwork and other crafts. I knew she’d be the perfect person to help me discover a few new crafts, and before I knew it we’d booked ourselves onto a coracle making workshop with wood craftsman Alistair Phillips, quite possibly one of the nicest people I’ve met. On Friday, we popped up to Henley-on-Thames in the sunshine and, after a cup of tea, began our workshop in the balmy warmth of Alistair’s garden. Beside us a chaffinch gobbled up a damselfly, and red kites filled the sky above; the house was only six miles from the original holding pens of their successful conservation programme in the 1980s.

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The coracle, also known as a currach, bull boat, quffa or parasil, is a small boat that dates back thousands of years, found in cave paintings from the early Bronze Age and possibly even the Ice Age. They are traditionally made using a woven frame built from locally foraged wood, with animal hair ropework and a waterproof cow hide. We made ours using ash laths for the basketwork and PVC fabric for the waterproof shell; authenticity is all very well but I’d rather my boat stayed afloat, and I was very happy to use what is, essentially, lorry plastic.

Coracles are also fantastic for getting up close to wildlife, as you are able to float quietly down small rivers that other boats may not be able to access.

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The ash laths had been soaked for a few weeks before to make them bendier, which meant we could weave them together to form a basket shape, using G Clamps to secure the structure while we nailed everything together. We attached the PVC lining out in the sunshine, as the heat made it more supple and easier to pull the fabric tight across the wooden frame.

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Seven hours later, we had created our very own coracles! We plopped them down on Alistair’s pond and paddled around with the frogs to get used to the technique, before transporting our coracles five minutes down the road to a secluded pool in the depths of a beech and oak woodland. Here we bobbed around blissfully for an hour, listening to green and spotted woodpeckers calling to one another, and discussing the Latin roots of medicinal plants. Quite honestly, one of the most sublime days I’ve ever experienced. I’m now looking forward to finding ponds and streams around Hampshire in which to have a few more watery adventures…

Alistair runs several two-day coracle courses each year and I cannot recommend them enough! You can find out more on his website here.

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A Sky full of Stars

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Dave’s been away on tour for the past few weeks, and while I’m usually fairly good at keeping myself busy in times of solitude, on Thursday evening I really couldn’t be bothered to slob around watching Only Fools & Horses repeats on Netflix. Dusk fell, and I decided to take a drive up to Butser Hill nearby, one of the darkest and highest points in the South Downs National Park. The day had been gloriously hot with bright, cerulean skies, and I knew the night sky, equally cloudless and still, would be perfect for stargazing.

In 2016, the South Downs National Park was declared an International Dark Sky Reserve due to the low levels of light pollution found here. Despite my poor photography skills, I wanted to try experimenting with long exposures to see if I could capture the night sky in my lens, and it was also a deliciously warm night for stretching my legs and attempting to spot the odd bat or badger. Over the next hour and a half, I completed a loop around the hill and managed to get a few pleasing shots of the stars… A productive evening, but plenty of room to expand my camera knowledge!

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Beltain Interview on Radio 4

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Last week we held our annual Beltain festival at Butser Ancient Farm! Beltain is an ancient ritual celebrated by the Iron Age people, to welcome in the summer months and persuade the gods to bless them with a good harvest. At the farm, we build a 30ft wickerman and burn him down at the end of a glorious evening of live music, dancing, storytelling, real ale and cider, Celtic mead, hog roast, metallurgy, woodwork, flintknapping, maypole, astronomy and much more.

On the morning of this year’s Beltain I was interviewed on BBC Radios 4’s Saturday Live. You can find out more information on the festival here!

Garlic Mustard & Wild Swimming

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We fancied a little escape for the Easter weekend, so we took the campervan to Somerset for a spring adventure. It coincided with the start of my training for the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge I’m taking part in this August with James and Sacha; we’re raising money for the BTO’s Curlew Appeal and I needed to start preparing my poor calves! It was also a great opportunity to trial my new Jack Wolfskin North Ridge jacket, which turned out to perform amazingly in the west country weather! We were treated to heavy winds and a sprinkle of rain, but the North Ridge kept me warm and dry all weekend. It’s also the most supreme flamingo colour – what’s not to love?! Find it here.

We spent Saturday hiking around the Cheddar Gorge, sampling cheddar and drinking in the fresh air. The gorge is populated by wild goats chomping on the shrubs that climb up the cliffs, and we also found plenty of butterflies and wildflowers emerging into the warmer weather.

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Loving my new North Ridge jacket from Jack Wolfskin!

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Wild goats in Cheddar Gorge

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Garlic mustard galore

After our hike we drove the camper to Chedzoy, a village in Somerset where we’d heard of a great spot for wild swimming (I highly recommend the book Wild Swimming by Daniel Start). We watched the sunset shrouded in duvet with a cold cider and fell asleep, and in the morning I decided to go for a dip! This took me a fair while as I didn’t really have the balls for it, but eventually I found the courage and swam about for 5-10 minutes accompanied by a startled swan. An awesome experience! Although freezing cold at first, after 3-4 minutes my body adapted and I was able to swim freely.

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Sunset by the river

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Wild swimming on Easter morning

With my combined love for the National Trust, the Romantic poets, cake and gardens, I was delighted to discover we were very close to Coleridge Cottage, a little house in Nether Stowey where Coleridge lived for three years and wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. There we treated ourselves to poetry, bluebells and sticky ginger cake, before stretching our legs on a three-hour walk along the Coleridge Way through the Quantocks. This was a wondrous, desolate landscape filled with burnt gorse and twisted trees; we eventually found our way home to the camper and popped a cool bottle of prosecco to celebrate the Easter bun.

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Coleridge’s garden

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Dave in Coleridge’s garden

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Somerset flora

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Coleridge Cottage

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The Coleridge Way

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The Quantocks

Postcards from India

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On Valentine’s Day I got the plane back from a delicious fortnight in Goa, a small state on the west coast of India. The whole trip was a hot, vibrant cocktail of sights and sounds and tastes, but to try and describe it all in words would take another two weeks – so here is a collection of visuals instead. का आनंद लें! (Enjoy!)

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Goa is a paradise for stray dogs, the vast majority of which are friendly and just want love/food. At night they played in the sea as we walked along the beach, and in the day they snoozed on the side of the road, oblivious to the stream of cars and scooters flying past. We only saw one dead dog.

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The cows are almost as plentiful as the dogs. Cows are sacred in Hinduism and Jainism, so they wander the streets with their calfs in search of tasty offerings given out by restaurant staff, either out of kindness or to please the deities. They are all extremely friendly and like their heads being scratched.

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The gardens were filled with big, beautiful butterflies that tended to land frustratingly out of reach on the leaves of coconut trees. I’m terrible at butterfly identification, but the internet has persuaded me this is a rather faded common gull, which was kind enough to pose for a photo when the common lime and swallowtail would not.

During our boat trip along the Mandovi river, we were encouraged to rudely awaken the flock of flying foxes sleeping in a tree. I felt a bit bad about this, but it was very cool to see one fly. They are huge.

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We biked over to the Salim Ali bird sanctuary on the island of Chorão, which is a protected mangrove habitat filled with birds and snakes and all good things. We sat for a while on the stone jetty and watched ospreys and brahminy kites calling overhead, and on the mudflats below us we discovered an amazing community of crabs and mudhoppers.

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The identification of such crabs is miles beyond my capability as a naturalist, but their shells were decorated in all kinds of colours and patterns. My favourite was this bright blue one, which reminded me of those scarab beetle souvenirs you find in museums. As the crabs were wary of strangers and prone to scuttling away, Dave only managed to take this photo from an aerial view after I sat on his legs to anchor him down.

The crabs seemed to be making holes in the mud, scraping out large piles of soil and searching for something in the ground. I presumed they were eating or finding somewhere to sleep, but my knowledge of crustaceans is minimal so we just enjoyed watching them scurry back and forth.

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A fishing boat lay in the sand at Baga Creek, filled with salty specimens drying in the sun. As a vegetarian I don’t usually eat much fish, but the dishes were so tantalising in Goa that I did permit myself the odd kingfish curry. My favourite food discovery was the paneer masala dhosa, which is basically a crepe filled with melted cheese and spices. Supreme stuff.

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I’d never ridden a scooter before but thought hey, India has such a great reputation for road safety, why not start here? On the scoot up to Fort Aguada I got pulled over by a policeman who tried to fine us £20 for not carrying a proper bike license, but I suspected it might be a little scam so we managed to talk our way out of it. After the first day I decided I’d risked my life enough and rode pillion on Dave’s bike for the rest of the trip.

The roads in India are even more mental than you think. There are literally no rules except that everyone just accelerates when they think it’s their turn. I decided to film our scoot from Baga beach to Candolim, complete with bikes, cars, trucks, dogs, cows, potholes and pedestrians.

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A fisherman on the Mandovi river during our boat trip to watch crocodiles. This photo was taken during a short break, when we anchored under a mangrove tree with samosas and cold beer in the sun. The journey was speckled with kingfishers of all colours and sizes.

In the end we saw five wild crocodiles on the banks of the Mandovi. They lay deadly still in the sun, camouflaged in khaki against the mud, and without our lovely guide we would have missed them all. I’m not particularly frightened of crocodiles, but did retreat slightly when we watched one climb effortlessly over a four foot wall.

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While the rest of India was being manhandled by the British Raj, Goa was colonised by the Portuguese and, hidden away by the peaks of the Western Ghats, consequently developed a different culture to the rest of the country. We visited the capital Panjim, which is filled with Portuguese architecture and prints.

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I loved the colourful patterns splashed against walls, a reminder of a colonial past that is now slipping away. Despite the country’s European history, we were greeted with warm delight everywhere we went, particularly me as I am so tall and pale. I was often asked to have a selfie taken with Indians on holiday in Goa, which was bizarre but not at all unpleasant.

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Another boat trip in the Arabian Sea, waiting to spot humpback dolphins in the Goan bay. Along the coast we saw an abandoned prison that lay in dusty ruins alongside a few luxurious houses looking out to sea.

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There were lots of dolphins in the bay, who obliged us with a few sightings of their fins above the water. Humpback dolphins are not as well researched as other species, but they live along coastlines and don’t seem to mind boats full of ogling tourists.

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Despite the amazing naans, dogs, piña coladas, spices, birds and coconuts, my favourite memory was our daily swim in the Arabian Sea. Jumping in the waves for hours at a time, we felt tiny fish nibbling our arms and watched an osprey circling above us, waiting for the sun to set and another cocktail to be swiftly ordered. Delicious.