Friday, 24 January 2014

North-east London: An almshouses walk

Christchurch Spitalfields

Dinner in London offered an opportunity for some sort of a walk and I decided to progress my almshouses project. I have recently read Clive Berridge's invaluable The Almshouses of London and with the aid of the A to Z and the tube map I rough out an interesting itinerary.

I start from Liverpool St and walk along Brushfield St to Commercial Road. Spitalfields Market (which a plaque says was rebuilt for Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1887) is on one side and the imposing Baroque Christchurch (1714-29, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor) is almost opposite.

Puma Court is home to the Norton Folgate Almshouses. Two rectangular brick buildings divided by a narrow gated courtyard are now home to four two-bedroom flats. A plaque reveals that the buildings date from 1860 and were built to replace earlier ones of 1728 in Blossom St which were demolished to allow for road widening. The original 1860 accommodation was a single room for each resident, but successive renovations have improved on this.

From here I walked up Fournier St and along the celebrated Bangladeshi enclave of Brick Lane to then head east along Whitechapel St  and then into Mile End Rd in search of one of London's many hidden gems: the Trinity Green Almshouses. They were designed by Sir Christopher Wren and date from 1695. They consist of two single storey ranges facing each other across a lawn, with a handsome chapel at the end. Each of the ranges has a triangular pediment on the centre.

At the end of each range, facing the street is a sort of gatehouse. The plaque contains the inscription that they were founded by the Corporation of Trinity House, on land provided by a Captain Henry Mudd, for "28 decay'd Masters and Commanders of Ships, or their widows". The nautical connection is displayed in the statue of a ship on the left hand side.

They were badly damaged in the war, but were subsequently restored and are now used as Council housing.

I now cheated and took the London Overground to Hoxton to see my next target: the former Ironmongers' Almshouses, now the Geffrye Museum, in Kingsland Road.

This delightful building was founded in 1714 by Sir Robert Geffrye, an Ironmonger and Mayor of London. The almhouses consist of a long central range with a pedimented chapel in the middle, and a shorter, separate, wing at each end. The buildings are laid out around a garden with trees and grass.

The site was sold to the London County Council in 1914 and turned into a museum. It now focuses on the history of the home. It is possible to see a restored almshouse at certain times. As it was already beginning to get dark I resisted the urge to go in and explore.

Instead I hopped back on the Overground to Seven Sisters and walked briskly north, pausing briefly to see Forsters Cottages of 1870. These have clearly been altered since Clive Berridge photographed them in that the two central front doors have now been boarded up. They were endowed by Josiah and Robert Forster and built in 1860. Berridge says they are the smallest surviving almshouses in London.

It was getting increasingly dark now and I walked urgently further north to my final target, the Drapers Almhouses in Bruce Grove. They date from 1870 and have the same basic shape as the Ironmongers' ones of 150 years earlier: a long range parallel to the road with a central chapel and separate wings at right angles.

In front is a very similar, and equally pleasant, grassy garden with trees.

A train from Bruce Grove returned me to Liverpool St and I arrived at the dinner venue right on time.

Conditions: cloudy, about 8 degrees.

Distance: I seem to have walked about five miles.

Rating: four stars. Three classic sets of Almshouses.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Selvatura hanging bridges

The cloud forest

We are now staying in Monteverde, which straddles the Continental divide: the Pacific slope on one side and the Caribbean slope on the other. It is accessible only by one of the worst roads we have ever seen. Apparently the locals don't want it improved because they fear to be over-run by tourists. The main attraction is the Cloud Forest - basically rain forest at high altitude (about 1600m). It is always damp because of warm moist air coming from the Caribbean discharging its water when it hits the high ridge of the Continental divide.

We have explored the cloud forest at ground level and now we are taking a high level path linked by eight hanging bridges to see what it looks like at canopy level. We know already that there is a lot going on in the canopy and this branch covered in bromeliads gives a good indication of the way in which plants pile on top of each other in the struggle for light.

The first bridge was fairly uneventful, but the next one presents a more dramatic sight.

 Soon you have a real feeling of being on top of the world, looking down on the thick forest.

It is of course raining a little so the view is not great, but it is marvelous to be able to see the tops of the trees we have previously only been able to gaze up at.

In one of the ground level sections we were thrilled when our guide pointed out an Owl butterfly sheltering on a tree trunk. This one is Caligo atreus dionysos, the Yellow-edged Giant Owl.

On the final bridge our guide spotted this green viper nesting in the top of a tree. It is a side-striped palm-pit viper, one of the dozen or more venomous snakes found in Costa Rica.

As we neared the end of the circuit, I couldn't resist this shot of somebody zooming across the sky, high above the canopy, on a zip line. The remarkable coexistence of eco-tourism and activities for teh thrill-seeker!

After the canopy walk we had a very interesting guided tour of the fine butterfly house. There weren't as many butterflies as one might have hoped, but this remarkable Colobura dirce stood out. It has a kind of dummy head at the back of its body. The idea being that if this part is attacked by a predator, the insect can escape with its vital organs unaffected.

We also saw some newly hatched Malachites. It is a beatiful butterfly when roosting with its wings open ..

... but quite staggering when you see the underwings.

Conditions: Cool and damp.

Distance: about 2 miles.

Rating: five stars.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Arenal Volcano

Arenal Volcano: almost free of cloud!

We arrived in La Fortuna this morning and this afternoon's entertainment is a walk on the lava field of Arenal Volcano, 1633m above sea level. It used to be the most active of Costa Rica's volcanoes and indeed one of the most active in the world, but it has been quiet since December 2010. It is notoriously difficult to see, allegedly only clear for 77 days a year. As the picture above shows, we were lucky.

You follow a trail from the car park through a grassy landscape and we quickly noticed some wildflowers, which have been noticeably scarce on our trip so far, and immediately afterwards some butterflies. Hurray! Apart from some, by now, familiar Sulphurs there was what I thought was a Monarch (see for comparison this one I saw in Hahei in New Zealand - it is obviously brighter).

When it opened its wings however, it was instantly obvious that it was not a Monarch, but in fact a Queen, a first for me.

The path had been following a field edge and we now turned right to enjoy our first clear sight of the volcano, with a very pretty small pool in the foreground to enhance the view.

We walked along a track towards the volcano noting the view to the right of scattered trees amid grassland, with mountains behind. This was very different from what we have seen previously in Costa Rica and seemed almost African.

At the end of this section we cross the paths of several groups of leaf cutter ants. I took some photos, but failed to get close enough and they simply show some green bits on the path: you can't see the ants carrying them back to their next.

At this point we began the ascent towards the view point for the volcano. As we got closer, it was framed rather delightfully by the bushes.

At bit further on we entered the lava field from the last major eruption in 1968. This was a major event, killing 78 people and changing the shape of the volcano as the top was blasted off.

Further up, there was a lovely view to the right over Lake Arenal, an artificial lake which, by means of a hydro-electric scheme, provides nearly half of Costa Rica's electricity.

As we got closer to the view point, the cloud continued to clear and we were delighted with the view shown at the top of this post.

We came back down by a steeper route and returned to the car park, seeing a One-day orchid on the way - it flowers for one day only, every six months. To my frustration, I couldn't manage a decent picture. 

Conditions: hot and sunny.

Distance: only a couple a of miles.

Rating: five stars. A really memorable walk.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Selva Verde

Part of the garden at Selva Verde Lodge

We are on holiday in Costa Rica and staying for a few days at Selva Verde Lodge in a private reserve near Puerto Viejo di Sarapiqui. It is in the tropical rain forest on the Caribbean slope of the central mountain range. The post describes our exploration of a couple of self-guided trails followed by a guided tour in primary rain forest.

We started the self guided tour in the small botanical garden where there were a number of dramatic tropical plants like this heleconia ...

... and this vibrant passionflower.

The presence of flowers meant some butterfly sightings, including several Banded Peacocks, which looked at first like some sort of White Admiral.

We walked in a loop around this section of the grounds, spotting an Agouti (which I failed to get a really clear photo of). It is rather like a very large squirrel.

Then we crossed the road and walked through secondary rain forest (i.e forest which has been cleared and then has regenerated).

 This brought us round to the shallow, but fast-flowing, Sarapiqui river.

To continue our exploration we had arranged for a guide to take us across the suspension bridge over the river into the primary rain forest which lay beyond.

The essential difference between primary and secondary forest was immediately apparent: the trees were bigger and more closely packed, there were more epiphytes and more activity in the canopy.

It was hot and humid in the rain forest but surprisingly quiet. Our guide was very enthusiastic about it: the forest was "very beautiful" and "gorgeous". I was thrilled to soon see a Giant Damselfly.

But I was frustrated by a blue Leaf butterfly which would only perch on the underside of leaves.

One of the features of Costa Rican rain forest is how many of the plants and creatures are dangerous: we soon saw the poisonous Blue Jeans Frog (a tiny red frog blue legs) and the Green/Blue Poison Dart Frog ..

.. and the bullet ant.

An American entomologist, Jason O Schmidt, has developed the Schmidt Sting Pain Index and according to him the bullet and offers the world's most painful insect bite.

Our guide also identified the black growths we had seen on several trees - they were termite nests.

Our fascinating introduction to the rain forest ended at a 300 year old hollow tree with bats roosting inside.

Conditions: hot (low 20s) and humid.

Distance: probably not much more than a couple of miles all told. Frequent stops for explanations and photographs.

Rating: four and half stars.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

La Paz Waterfall garden

View over the garden

We arrived in Costa Rica yesterday for a two week holiday and are today en route for our first destination, the Salva Verde Lodge at Puerta Viejo di Sarapiqui. We stopped mid-way at the La Paz (Peace) Waterfall Garden. We didn't really know what to expect, but it functioned as an excellent introduction to Costa Rica and its wildlife.

La Paz is a mixture of garden, river and wildlife sanctuary and we began by descending past lovely tropical plants to see some aviaries and in particular the three main varieties of Toucan which are found in the country. This is the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan (the others are the Keel-billed and Green).

Next door was a butterfly house. It was so cloudy that most of the butterflies were clustered near the roof, but I did get a nice shot of this Postman. I was told later that it is so called because it visits the same nectar plants in the same order each morning. I don't know if this is in fact true, but it's a great story.

Next we walked down a series of paths to see the first of a series of waterfalls - and of course pose for some souvenir pictures.

A series of walkways followed the path of the river and revealed the next waterfall.

At the end the narrow valley opens out and the river continues at the base of a much wider and very deep-sided valley. We were all set to walk back up, but a shuttle bus was waiting and spared us the trouble.

Back at the main garden, we visited our first hummingbird garden. A series of feeders provide sugared water which the hummingbirds access by inserting their long thin beaks into a matching hole. The birds are wild, but are drawn to the feeders by the easy food source. They are almost constantly on the move, whirring, hovering, stopping and starting in mid-air like characters in a cartoon. However, with a bit of patience it was possible to get some nice pictures of them either on a feeder ...

... or preparing for the next onslaught sitting on a nearby branch.

Costa Rica boasts some 54 species of hummingbird - and in fact has improbable numbers of species of almost every type of creature imaginable. For example, more than a thousand species of butterfly.

The final section of our tour was more uncomfortable. A series of enclosures held some of the big cats that are the top predators: puma, jaguars and ocelots. Although these were said to be animals which had been rescued and would be released into the wild if suitable territories could be found for them, we couldn't escape the feeling that we were in a zoo, with these dramatic animals sitting listlessly in their smallish enclosures.

We headed on our way to Sarapiqui and were delighted when our driver stopped to show us a Coati by the road side.

It turned out that there was a whole group of them (I think band may be the collective noun) lurking by a lay-by waiting for cars to stop and feed them. When a car stopped they would all rush (I could very aptly have said hightail) towards it with an expectant air. If food was on offer they would mob the people, if not they would quickly turn away disdainfully and wait for the next arrival. The Coati is related to the raccoon and the long tail helps balance when climbing trees.

Conditions: damp at first, but brightening up after lunch.

Distance: perhaps two miles, maybe less.

Rating: four stars.