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What weighs 50kg?

We write a lot of labels in museums. Museum curators write them for exhibitions and displays. These labels help the visitors to discover more about the object on display. They can open an unknown world about that object: the history; the story; the relevance.

There are different ways of writing museum labels. Personally, I prefer to write them in a slightly conversational tone, being quite informal. Visitors will engage more with the object on display if the label next to it is exciting and fun. (I wrote a little about writing labels in museums here.)

Sometimes we need to describe our object a little more. It may be a fragment of a fossil, so we may want to say how big the animal would have been when it was alive. This is great as long as people can relate to it. Saying the animal would have been 10 metres long means very little to anyone. Saying the animal would have been as long as a double decker bus is so much more visual for anyone who reads it.

If I’m describing the size, or weight, of something, I want visitors to be able to visualise it.

I recently had to write a label for an object, and struggled with the weight comparison. This thing was pretty heavy, but behind glass the visitors wouldn’t really get a sense of just how heavy. It weighed 50kg. I wanted to get this weight on my label, but 50kg doesn’t mean a lot to most people: 50 bags of sugar is a bit better, but it’s still not quite right.

So, I asked Twitter. And of course, Twitter responded.

There were an enormous range of responses. Some of the more interesting ones were comparing 50kg to numbers of animals. One chap said ‘a 50kg butterfly’. Another said ’35 million ants’. Whilst this is probably true, I wanted something that the majority of visitors would immediately see. 35 million ants, or 25,000 krill is pretty tricky to visualise.

There were a surprisingly large amount of replies that said ‘me’. I quite like the personal touch to this – it’s always nice to get a little personal touch in a label. It makes the object and the information more relatable to visitors: something special behind the glass, and with a personal touch it makes it something relatable to you and I. Sadly, I doubt that many museum visitors know Robyn, Paolo, Nadine or Elina.

There were an awful lot of replies about dogs. And many of the replies included pictures of dogs. And even the dog owners and their dogs. Obviously cute (and somewhat terrifying given the size of some of them), dogs are a nice choice as people love dogs. But when we get into specific breeds, do the majority of people know what a Newfoundland dog is? Regrettably I didn’t chose a dog as my weight comparison. But I will give you a few of the horrifying adorable abominations doggies.


It was inevitable that someone would do the classic shot of themselves lying next to a sturgeon. These are pretty big fish. Some species can grow longer than I am tall. This group of fish are pretty old too, with the earliest fossils being found around 240 million years ago. It’s a shame that these giants are not well know in the public eye. And more of a shame I couldn’t use this example with the photo:

A chimp is quite a good one. Male chimpanzee can weigh between 40kg and 60kg, and females can weigh between 27kg and 50kg. They are quite muscular animals. And instantly recognisable too. But, the variation is too much. Would the label say ‘an average sized male chimpanzee’ or ‘ a large female chimpanzee’? When we start to describe obscure specifics we are entering a realm of pure chaos for label writing: it gets messy, there’s waffle, and a new world of attempting to visualise something a little off the norm.

The same can be said of anything which is ‘half of’, or ‘an animal with something else’. Half a dolphin might just traumatise the kids reading the label. And, as fascinating as it truly is, I don’t think a Blue Whale testicle is a good comparison. (I think it is a fascinating comparison in it’s own right, but not for my label.)

The Giant Pacific Octopus is a neat example. It does weigh 50kg. Unfortunately many people won’t have seen one or know how big it is. These are pretty big beasts, which can be longer than a black cab. As nice as it is, I won’t use this example, because I would need an illustration to show the size of the Giant Pacific Octopus, and that makes the label get too complicated.

Of course, museum folk jumped in with their example. My favourite – 1000 herbarium sheets. It’s quite an interesting fact. Herbaria are collections of pressed plants. They are mounted on thin sheets of card, with all the information written onto the card. I actually didn’t know that 1000 sheets would weigh 50kg.

There’s an awful lot of choice. From pressed plants to the testicle of a Blue Whale, a lot of really interesting things weigh 50kg. Which one am I going to use for my label. I think I am going for something simple. Something everyone can visualise. Something cute.

Thank you to everyone who responded. And I will leave you with a final one for your thoughts:



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Memories shared

“Are you sitting down?” came the voice from the other end of the phone. That’s when I found out my mum died the day after New Years Day. It’s a blur to remember what my dad and I said. I sat in my cluttered little office for a few minutes after hanging up. Shock. Dream-like. So many questions. A haze.

Then I made my way downstairs to carry on with preparing for my son’s birthday party.

Death and life both shared that day.

Cubby cheeks and big pouty lips. I haven’t changed much.

Do we really ever deal with death? I’m not sure. I think we cope. We have to. But I don’t know if we really deal with it.

I’m not very open with my feelings. I am awful with any attention – I sweat, my freaking eye twitches, my heart pumps so hard you can see my shirt moving. I rapidly make a silly joke to hopefully move the attention away from me. For as long as I can remember, I think that other people have much worse problems than me, so I feel uncomfortable talking about myself. I don’t know if that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s why I enjoy writing; it’s a way to express things I otherwise wouldn’t say.

That’s how I cope. I don’t talk about it. I find things to do. Keep myself busy. Try not to stop. Make sure my little ones are happy, secure and loved. I try to be there for my three brothers and two sisters who are each coping their own way.

I do feel guilty. Guilty I didn’t call more often. Guilty I didn’t visit more. Guilty I didn’t write. Guilty I never once said ‘I love you’. My parents lived a 5 hour drive away, but that’s no excuse.

Apparently I loved that horse. And those shoes.

Life is so short. It can be taken away in an instant. Without warning.

My mum had a heart attack in the early hours of the morning. She was only in her late 60s. Seven children. Five grandchildren. She was a very kind, thoughtful, and funny woman; traits I hope I have inherited.

Despite coping, there are triggers that snap you back to the fact that that person has gone. The sound of a television programme. The smell of my favourite dish: goulash. Oh, garlic, lots of garlic. Your own birthday. Their birthday.

In the UK today is Mother’s Day. A little gimmicky, like all these ‘special’ days are, but it’s a day to celebrate and appreciate all the incredible hard work mothers do for all their families. I don’t think that only applies to the living.

It is a huge thing to lose a parent. Many people have lost their mother. Some at really early ages. Coping is the easy part. We can talk to those who are close to us. We can keep ourselves busy. We learn to cope. Time does help. (I am in no way dismissing how difficult it is to cope. Every individual person will cope in their own way. And they will find a way to cope which works for them.)

Dealing with such a loss is harder. It might even be impossible. Do we have to deal with death? Really?

Perhaps we don’t.

Sharing our memories, our stories, no matter how small, keeps them alive. These are real things that helps them to live on. Even though they are gone, they will always be close to us. Because they will always be alive in our hearts.

For my two children, she won’t be forgotten. Her quirks, her kindness, her life will be told through stories. Memories shared: defying death.

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A bit of a headache – the sequel

Sequels are never as good as the originals: Jaws 2 (that beach resort was pretty unlucky); The Jewel of the Nile (spoiler: there was no actual jewel); Basic Instinct 2 (yep, there was a sequel); Speed 2 (admit it, you’ve seen it); Dirty Dancing 2 (we do not talk about Dirty Dancing 2) … The list goes on. Countless hours of our lives that we will never get back. And they don’t even make good party talk.

Fortunately (for this blog post) there are exceptions to the rule, and there have been some great sequels. The favourite to the Star Wars trilogy is The Empire Strikes Back (I confess, Return of the Jedi is still my favourite from the original trilogy). Aliens kicked ass. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was wonderfully great. Grease 2 was way more of a cool rider than the first.

There is some hope.

Last October I had a little operation on my sinuses. A small ‘balloon’ was pushed up one of my nasal passageways and then expanded. The hope was to enlarge the passageway in my nostril, allowing the snot to flow freely down and out and to release the pressure in my head. For 16 months prior to this operation I had chronic sinusitis. 16 months of a headache. 16 months of pain, pressure, tiredness, and aching eyeballs. 16 months.

The snot didn’t flow freely. The release never came.

That small gloop was thought to be the cause of tremendous pressure in my head for the last 16 months. A balloon was inserted and expanded. The blob went. The pain stayed.


It’s an odd thing trying to describe something to someone who has never experienced it. Sinusitis is painful. For some people it is like an intense pressure headache for a week. Others feel pressure and pain just below their eyes. It can be caused by blockages: mucus getting stuck in cavities. My experience was a little more dramatic. Every day I had a headache. Not a normal headache. A headache where I would be more than happy if you got an electric drill and drilled just above my left eye to release the pressure.

Now it was 23 months. 23 months of a headache.

23 months.

As with all invisible illnesses, on the outside you can appear fine. But inside, every day, every minute, there is pain. The pain from the pressure is there everyday: it doesn’t go away. Sometimes it thumps. Sometimes it stabs. But it is always there. And there is nothing you can do. Sprays didn’t work. Drops were useless. Antibiotics didn’t touch it.

After the first balloon operation didn’t work, my surgeon (the expert on Jack the Ripper) booked me in for another, more ‘aggressive’ one. I am strangely proud how much he was fascinated with my sinus anatomy: “these nasal passages are the worst I have ever seen” he once told excitedly. At one point he tried to put a camera up my nostril, and after pushing it just half a centimetre up, he admitted defeat by saying “Nope. That’s not going up there.” My surgeon wanted to scoop out some of my bone in my sinuses to make my passageways bigger so they wouldn’t get blocked.

And so on Thursday last week, I went in and had my second surgery on my sinuses. I don’t know if other people get this, but I wake up from the general aesthetic feeling a little bit tipsy. The first person I saw when I woke up was a recovery nurse looking after me, and she looked like a Julie, so I insisted on calling her Julie (she was called Mel). I remember telling someone that “I look after dead things” – probably not the wisest of things to say in a hospital. Despite my silly behaviour, all the doctors, nurses and other hospital staff were fantastic and treated me with such good care. The NHS is a fantastic service and we are incredibly lucky to still have it.

The only thing left is the head to heal. It feels like an expert on Jack the Ripper has been up there. And I guess this will take time to heal. It really hurts across my entire forehead. One thing that I am still waiting for is the absorbent pack to come out. After the surgery was finished, they shoved some absorbent gel up my nose to help clot the blood. After 48 hours I was told to blow my nose and it should come out. Nothing has come out apart from a few tiny square jelly cubes covered in blood. It should come out soon. Otherwise I will have to go in see my surgeon again….

Well, let’s hope I don’t have to go through this to get that pack out from up my nose. (Clip from Total Recall, 1990).


Now I am at home, and have been in bed for the last four days, writing this blog post in short bursts – too long out of bed and I feel dizzy. Why am I writing this? Growing up I always knew that there were so many more people worse of than me, so I dealt with things by myself. I am now extremely crap with sympathy (and compliments) – I blush, my eye starts to twitch and water, and I can see my shirt rise from the ridiculous pumping of my heart. I am not writing this for sympathy or compliments (please – I hate it when my eye twitches).

(Incidentally, my eyes start to water because of kindness. They do it all the time. If I see some kindness in a shop, my eyes water. Watching the kindness of Jamie Lannister and Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones gets me every time. There is often ‘something in my eye’ if I am watching a film. Kindness will set the tears flowing.)

In my writing I normally like to include how much more we can appreciate the world by looking at the wildlife around us. I guess this post is more about noticing the people around us. We spend a massive amount of our day with work colleagues or alongside random people to and from work. We are all often so busy with our own worries or job pressures that we barely even notice someone behind the counter or next to us on the train. Take that second to say thank you to the person at the checkout, to stand up for the person on the train, to acknowledge if a colleague looks a little tiered. Life is short, yet you can make someone’s whole day so much better by just noticing.

To steal (and slightly change) a quote from one of my favourite (and most tear-jerking) films About Time, “live each day as if you’ve deliberately come back to this one day, to enjoy it, as if it was the full final day of your extraordinary, ordinary life.”

And thank goodness they haven’t made a sequel to About Time. That would be unforgiveable.


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A bit of a headache

For 16 months I have had chronic sinusitis.

16 months.

If you have had sinusitis, you know what it feels like. If you haven’t, it is pretty tricky to describe. Imagine a headache. Only this headache never goes away. It feels like it is expanding your skull – only your skull can’t expand because it’s solid bone. The best ‘every day’ analogy, would be when you land at an airport, and your ears feel blocked. After a few minutes, the air pushes out of you like a deflating balloon, with that ever so satisfying ‘psssssscht’: it feels quite good, because your ears are not blocked any more. Sinusitis feels a bit like that. Only the pressure is in your forehead. And there is no satisfying ‘psssssscht’.

Another way of describing it would be to drill into my forehead to release the pressure. And it would be just lovely.

Sinusitis is caused by something in, or around the sinus cavities. Some cavities can be blocked full of mucus (or snot). Other cavities can get irritated by dust, pollen, or even over sensitive nerves. These are generally dealt with by drops, sprays, or antibiotics, sometimes resulting in a somewhat unexpected sudden discharge of mucus (snot). For such a severe, chronic pain, I imagined all my sinus cavities to be blocked. For strange shaped cavities to be pressing here, or obscuring that. Sadly, there was nothing spectacular about the cause of my sinusitis. In fact, it was caused by a rather pathetic looking, extremely small blob at the bottom of one of my sinus cavities.

This is my head. That small gloop has caused tremendous pressure in me head for the last 16 months.

This is my head. The red arrow points to where a small blob of gloop has caused the pain.

That small gloop has caused tremendous pressure in my head for the last 16 months.

Every day.

For 16 months.

It doesn’t keep me bed bound all the time. It is just there. Throbbing. Pain. Sometimes it does get very bad. So bad my eyeball hurts. My eyeball!!

After shoving several small tubes of sprays and drops up my nostrils, and a myriad of antibiotics and steroids, I finally got an operation booked in. I was to have a balloon sinoplasty. A simple operation where the surgeon drills up my nostril, and inflates a small balloon to expand the sinus cavity. My surgeon (who also, somewhat terrifyingly,  happens to be an expert on Jack the Ripper) peered up my nostrils for the first time and said that they are the worst nasal passages he has ever seen. That’s always lovely to hear. Now the surgeon will be drilling up both nostrils to expand both cavities, and making my nasal passages a little less tight.

(For those who haven’t heard me talk, I sound uncannily like Mr Snuffleupagus. My voice is super nasally. I talk like I have a permanent blocked nose. And because of that I often mumble. I am a little intrigued if this will help me sound a little less like a giant puppet mammoth.)


I have just had the surgery, and I am now home. I woke up after the surgery feeling a little bit drunk. I don’t know what I said to the poor post-theatre staff, but they were giggling. I am sure I mentioned dinosaurs. And Star Wars. And Game of Thrones. I looked in the mirror, and I am strangely unscarred: I thought I would wake looking like Darkman, but there were no bandages and no bruises. I am a little terrified of seeing gallons of mucus (snot) fall uncontrollably from my face. I am told it won’t happen. Lets see.

The staff were all amazing – I was in and out in 6 hours. I saw half a dozens different staff, each unbelievably kind, friendly and caring. And it was free. FREE. For everyone’s moaning about the NHS, the service, and staff, do an incredible job. They were all fantastic.

So now, home, I lie here and wait. That’s the hardest part. I am never ill. I get bored if I am not doing something. This is actually my first day off work sick. Ever. In 10 years of working at the museum, I have never had a sick day. And I am annoyed that that ridiculously, almost verging on comical, small bit of gloop forced me to take a few days off.

I normally don’t write about myself. I am terrible with sympathy: I honestly don’t know what to say if it is offered to me. I start to get flushed. Nervous. I rapidly change the subject. The same thing happens when I am complimented on something: I have literally no idea how to react. In person, when someone can see my face, I am a mess. I avoid eye contact. I do a ridiculous smile which clearly shows my discomfort. Sometimes my eye twitches. Being conscious of this, I feel my face starting to twitch. I then waffle about something incomprehensible before passing the compliment back onto that person. It is not pretty.

Except for family and a few close friends, I haven’t shared my daily headaches on Facebook or Twitter. Personally, I don’t see the point, or the need to. There are much, much worse things happening all over the world than my head pains. Much worse.

So why write this post. It is not for sympathy (or compliments). I think a lot of us go through problems in our lives every day. Some people may share health issues on social media. Other, like myself, do not want to worry people. A headache every day for 16 months is bad (real bad). If I mentioned it on social media every single day for 16 months, it would drive people crazy! I can’t lie in bed moaning. Life goes on, and it is what we make it. Some people have really serious, lifelong issues. I don’t want those to feel smaller because of a headache. (It is really interesting to discuss, and could be a really long blog post, because the pain anyone has affects them. Everyone deals with it differently. This is how I deal with it – it is not the right way, or the wrong way. It’s my way.)

I know some friends who have been through really terrible things. One good friend has sinusitis so bad, they get flu-like symptoms at least twice a month. Every day she has the sinus pain, but no one would ever know. Another friend has had the most horrendous chronic pain in his back and insides. He has had numerous appointments, and operations, and at one point it was close to life threatening. No one would know because he carries on.

I guess the reason for me writing this post is that people are going through something every day. They may be caring for a family member, or themselves. If you are reading this, you know you are no alone. You only have to share what you are comfortable sharing. If you have a bad day and have not been as productive as you wanted, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes the pressures of social media can add an extra strain. The truth is, it doesn’t matter: Twitter will still be there with the awesome science; Facebook isn’t really going anywhere; your blog post can wait.

What is important is you. Your health – mental and physical. If you feel crap, rest. Rest, and know you are not alone.


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What the tide leaves behind

Winter is the season people love to hate. It’s dark when you leave the house in the morning, and it’s dark when you get back home. It’s wet. It’s cold. It’s often wet and cold. The landscape seems empty, dull, lifeless.

Look a little closer, and there is actually a lot to see. You could easily name a robin as soon as this inquisitive little bird comes into sight on a nearby branch. Other little birds maybe less familiar, but they are there too fleeting between branches. Trees may stand naked in woodlands and fields, yet they stand proud. And so they should, for a real beauty is exposed, normally hidden during other seasons: lichen. Attached to the bark is a remarkably large assortment of lichen species: flat crusty yellow ones, small green fury ones, and wavy lettuce ones. Natures very own henna tattoos.

In the summer, this beautiful lichen (Cladonia sp.) is normally hidden by the leaves on this tree.

In the summer, this beautiful lichen (Cladonia sp.) is normally hidden by the leaves on this tree. Just look how beautiful this is: like sugary crystals!


For most of us, when we build up the courage to step outside in the cold harshness of winter, we don’t stop to look at the trunk of a tree. We mutter an expletive at the cold or the wet (mostly at the cold and the wet), and do what we have to do quickly. No-one wants to be out in the cold longer than they need to be.

Nature is asleep and most people just want her to wake up. There is one place during winter which never really sleeps.

A trip to the beach is normally the thing to do in the summer. Us Brits go beach crazy at the slightest sign of a blue sky in the summer. Beaches are rammed with towels, wind breakers, and half naked people risking 10 years off their lives for a few weeks of a tanned body (which inevitably ends up as extremely painful sunburn – we always forget we have pretty fair skin).

In truth, beaches are best enjoyed during winter. Stepping out of the warm car, a fresh cold wind blasts your face for a minute. Your wellies are on, coat is zipped up, and you are ready. Your wellies make deeper footprints than your summer bare feet as you start to walk on the sand. Or if you walk onto the shingle, there is a loud crunch under your feet. After a moment, you don’t really notice the cold. What you do notice is the beach. The stillness. Silence: just the waves rushing in gently, and pulling out again. Apart from a few people scattered here and there, and a colony of sea gulls, the beach is yours.

Watching the waves roll in and wondering what animals are living in the cold sea water.

My eldest watching the waves roll in and wondering what animals are living in the cold sea water. He, and his little sister, enjoy the beach most at winter because there are no people, and it is theirs to explore.


It’s lovely to walk along an empty beach. What’s more, my little ones love it too. There’s more than just sand (or shingle) and water, and my little ones are fully aware. We always head to the where the water meets the sand/shingle (called the strandline) first, and then follow it to the end of the beach. We then sharply change direction, following the rocks to the top of the beach, before following the beach back to where we began. A nice circle walk on a beach. Sounds exciting? Oh, it really is. One walk and three surprisingly different areas to explore!

Splashing in the cold sea water is just one of the joys of walking along the strandline. We often run in together as the water is being sucked out, and play a little game of ‘chicken’ to see who stays the longest before the water gushes back in again. Often my two get a little too confident and I end up lifting them both up to save them from getting drenched – the waves don’t care who is in the way, and icy cold water sops over into my wellies.

To the untrained eye, the tide has left a lot of green smelly seaweed. My son, however, spots different types of seaweeds: red and green, and a thin branching, coraline one. He picks up barnacles, shells, and even a sea anemone and some jellyfish! His little sister watches him, and she starts to spot things too, a shiny mussel shell, a sponge, and a marine worm. Thier eyes pick out everything. Thier little fingers, red and cold, examines each new thing closely, eagerly asking questions, and enthusiastically telling each other. The receding tide leave a lot things on the beach, evidence of life hidden beneath the waves.

On one beach a year ago, we saw a hermit crab washed up, and the empty shell was just a few meters away. It may have been looking for a bigger shell, but Creb wasn’t moving anywhere. (My then 4 year old thought of the name Creb – perhaps because it sounded like Crab? Nothing to do with Clan of the Cave Bear!) With sea gulls around, we moved Creb to a safer rock pool area, and built a little shelter out of slate for protection.

The hermit crab ithout a shell. We built a little shelter for Creb to protect it against seagulls. I often wonder where Creb is today. Did he find a new shell...

The hermit crab ithout a shell. We built a little shelter for Creb to protect it against sea gulls. I often wonder where Creb is today. And I wonder if he ever did find a new shell…

At the end of our beach are cliffs. Undeterred by the cold, and without a break, here is where we explore next. This is a different place. Walking along the strand line we saw lots of wonderful things washed up, but they were all dead things. At the base of the cliffs, there are pools. Pools full of live to peer into. Humans have placed lots of large boulders, which helps (a little) to protect the cliffs from the never-ending onslaught of the sea. As the tide recedes, small pools of water were left between rocks and boulders, and with them so were some animals.

We scramble over the jagged rocks, and spread out. Carefully we all start to look in the rock pools, and lift up rocks. Shrimp, almost translucent, zoom across the water. A crab scurries and squeezes itself under another nearby rock to hide. Hermit crabs vanish with alarming speed inside their shells. Cushion stars stay perfectly still on a rock we just lifted. Here, each little pool is full of life! It takes us a surprising amount of time to make our way up to the top of the beach: each rock pool is carefully explored with loud excited shouts when something is found (and both my little ones are careful to put the rocks back how they were).


My little (nearly) 3 year old daughter carefully lookign at a shore crab. (After this photo was taken, I got nipped. And it hurt!)

My little (nearly) 3 year old daughter carefully looking at a shore crab. (After this photo was taken, I went to put the crab back, and it nipped me, really hard. I may have let out a little high pitched shreik.)


We eventually reach the top of the beach, where a path runs parallel to the sea. We follow it back, along the sand, not on the path. Here we would be walking a foot or so deep in water if it was high tide. Fortunately it’s not. My toes are still numb from being soaked to save my children earlier. The walk back is calmer and we talk about what we have seen already, with our eyes to the ground. Sentences are cut off as someone spots something: a mermaids purse (the egg case of a nurse hound), a delicate sea urchin, a squid beak. Just a few examples of how amazingly rich the marine life here is: we didn’t see a squid, but we found a squid beak so we know they are swimming out there. Holding it in their cold little hands, they both look at it, and then out to the water. It is easy to imagine what they are thinking.

Colourful shells and polished stones are all picked up, and placed in pockets. Crab claws too. And there are lots of them. I explain that as the tide was going out to sea, sea gulls would have eaten a few unlucky crabs. My son points to the colony who are still there. He asks why two are bigger and darker than the others. I didn’t spot them earlier on, but he is right: two of the sea gulls are actually greater blacked back gull! I haven’t seen one before that day! These are a bigger species than your common gull and they are magnificent to see. (To view the world through a 5 year olds eyes is something we should all try – we would see everything differently, and see so much more.)

Winters on a beach are the best times on a beach. There are hardly any people and the beach is yours to explore. The tide exposes an otherwise hidden world that we can discover for ourselves. It is difficult to respect what you cannot see: with each visit we see something new, and our respect grows. Not only our respect for nature as adults, but my little ones respect grows too. I don’t want them to be Eco-warriors. But by being able to see and hold the varitey of creatures along the shore, they have a richer understanding of the world around them, and appreciate its beauty.

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Love your Lichen

“Daddy, look!” he calls from the top of the slope. “Sausage lichen!”

It is a rare cloudless blue sky in the middle of the summer just gone, and we are visiting a favourite spot on Dartmoor. Holding a small branch like it is the most fragile of porcelain sculptures, he runs carefully towards me. There is a subconscious skill in the way he runs down the slope, aware of everything around him: his precious cargo remains safe as he effortlessly dodges the most delicate purple violets, and zig-zags through young green ferns unravelling their bright green new fronds, cautious not to trample anything. Perhaps his senses are so astute not because he has super powers, but because he is aware of the natural world around him. He is four and a half years old, but he has an innate respect for nature. And it shines.

He approaches, holding out his prize. The small rugged looking branch is about as long as my forearm, but this is no ordinary piece of wood. And he knows it. Dangling down, is a soft looking, light green clump; as if an oddly coloured sheep has snagged its wool on the branch.

“And look Daddy, there. Lettuce lichen,” he says excitedly. His subtly creased brow lines reveal his familiar seriousness when he has discovered something he is proud of.

We talk about the wind-broken stick and the lichen that have made their home there. He is hungry and his curiosity needs feeding. His enquiring mind is churning out many questions so he can make sense of this odd thing he has discovered. This clump of an otherwise obscure growth on a broken twig gets us talking about Peter Rabbit, the beasts of the last Ice Age in the South West, and, perhaps surprisingly, leading us quite naturally onto Father Christmas.

The wonderously gorgeous sausage lichen

The wonderously gorgeous sausage lichen, Usnea articulata. Here it is blissfully blowing in the gentle summer breeze. Wonderful to spot one on a branch in a tree, and the branch is also home to many more lichen species.

And why shouldn’t it? Lichen is bizarrely wonderful. What makes lichen so funky is that it is not just one species but two, and sometimes three! In passing, it may seem like a flat, dull, lifeless, crusty thing on a surface, but it is in fact an incredibly complex system of two (or more) organisms living together for mutual gain. Lichen is the Han Solo and Chewbacca of the natural world (with Luke Skywalker occasionally hanging around). This incredible relationship is between single celled algae or cyanobacteria (or sometimes both) and filaments of fungus. It is a truly symbiotic relationship: the algae get the protection from the fungus, and the fungus feeds from algae’s photosynthetic food. With no need for roots to take up food, the fungus can grow almost anywhere from the tops of delicate leaves, to in-between paving stones beneath your feet. Lichen can grow in some of the most extreme environments on the planet from the hellishly hot environments at Yellowstone Park to the freezing, Hoth-like environments on Antarctica.

And Peter Rabbit? Well, this is a nice little link. Peter Rabbit and friends were brought to life through the wonderful imagination and glorious illustrations of Beatrix Potter. Her fascination with wildlife didn’t stop with anthropomorphising rabbits, frogs and foxes. In incredible detail, Potter painted hundreds of elegant watercolours of fungi and lichen. She was fascinated with these botanical curiosities, and carried out countless experiments. She even questioned what lichens actually were. However, Potter wasn’t the first. Some 30 years before she pondered, a Swiss botanist, Simon Schwendener spent several years looking at the relationship between fungus and algae to explain exactly what lichen is. His ideas about lichen being two separate organisms didn’t took root with the British circle, even when Potter tired to reignite Schwendeners’ ideas, producing her own unique experiments. Her results, and her views, were ignored. The botanical world in the mid-1890s was not ready for two organisms living as one. Nor was it ready for a woman to be explaining what lichens really were, backed by successful experiments.

Like sugar crystals, Cladonia is one of my favorite types of lichen.

Like sugar crystals, this species from the Genus Cladonia, glistens in the sunlight. This is one of my favorite types of lichen, making me extremely excited when I see it.

Little old lichen, inconspicuously alive and elegantly beautiful, is a lifeline for many animals. In harsh winters, the wonderfully shaggy musk ox and the elegant reindeer scrap lichen off the rocks for food with their strong front incisors. What’s more incredible is that, until relatively recently, these beasts were wondering the British landscape: while reindeer trundled along in their huge herds, woolly mammoths lolloped. Reindeer fossils have been found at cave sites across Britain. In the South West, of England, around 20,000 to 15,000 years ago, when the climate was much colder, reindeer were scraping lichen off rocks with wolves howling in the distance.

And of course, the link to Santa. While Father Christmas enjoys a mince pie and whisky, it is not to far a step to imagine Rudolf and chums enjoying a snack on the yellow, flat lichen that adorns our roof tiles. One simple, otherwise unassuming lichen can open up so many incredible doors into a plethora of fascinating areas.

One of the favourite stories my son loves is that some species were used to dye clothes in the past. There is a special ingredient added to lichen which was hand scrapped of the cold, hard granite on Dartmoor. The key is in the pee. (The ammonia in the unrine brings out the colour from the lichen). This has been used for hundreds of years all across Europe. A wonderful fact he shares with his little sister.

As we chat my son spots a small weevil moving through the sausage lichen. He holds his breath for what seems like an eternity, for fear of unleashing a terrible gale on this tiny creature. He watches it move each jointed leg incredibly slowly through what must seem like mangrove forests to this enigmatic little beetle. My little one notices everything: the odd, unsynchronised movement of the antennae, the comically disproportionate nose. His brow lines begin to crease again.

Not a weevil, but a beautiful ground beetle

Not a weevil, but a beautiful two banded long horn beetle (Rhagium bifasciatum). We were looking at some lichen, and spotted something moving in the corner of our eyes, and this stunning beetle scurried past. (Apologies for the blury photo, it was a fast little thing!)

Lichen is beautiful. I like to tweet photos of them to share that beauty (#LoveYourLichen). I am not a lichenologist (although with a cool name like that, I am sometimes tempted), but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the beauty in these bizarrely wonderful organisms. If you think about it, you are not an anthropologist, but the latest news about new human fossil discoveries fills you with excitement and questions. What makes the magnificent BBC natural history programmes so mesmerising is seeing the diversity and splendour of life in so much detail in your living room.

Nature captures us so strongly because we all have a natural curiosity with the animals and plants of the world. David Attenborough recognised this, when he wrote “Every child in this world has an innate pleasure and delight and interest and curiosity in the natural world.” I would go a step further, and say every person in this world has that innate pleasure, delight, interest and curiosity.

That may seem like quite a bold statement. I know, because I have seen it so many times. The reaction of little ones and their parents is so similar when they see a real skeleton up close or come face to face with a pickled octopus. The only difference being the adults are more restrained. But talk to them about the creature, show it to them close, and that inner child comes out pretty quickly. Perhaps as adults our lives are filled with bills, chores, jobs, and other things, we often forget to stop and look at the world around us. Maybe everybody doesn’t like dinosaurs. Not everyone likes trees. There is something about nature that everybody does like.

Whilst looking at some lichen on a gorgeous oak tree, we spotted two lovely

Whilst looking at some lichen on a glorious oak tree, we spotted two lovely Black Arches moths (Lymantria monacha) resting on the comfy moss.

Lichen is one way of looking. You can choose anything really, trees, bees, flowers, or birds. I originally pointed out lichen to my little one because it was different: it is not always obviously there, but it is everywhere. It is also pretty weird. Step outside. Take a walk in your park, or local woods. Or just in your garden. Watch the autumn light shine on the vibrant colours of the leaves around you and look for lichen on rocks or the branches of trees. Lichen is one easy way to feed that curiosity in all of us. It is all around hanging on trees, or flat on the side of buildings. We see the lichen and its beautiful colours, with those stunning tiny cups to release its’ next generation.

When we do spot it, we look closer. We might catch a shimmer of blue as an iridescent ground beetle moves nearby, or a blue tit singing on a nearby branch. The world around us is breathtakingly beautiful. The more we look, the more we see that beauty.


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Some kind of wonderful

I don’t normally read magazines in the doctor’s waiting room. After a lifetime of speaking like Mr Snuffleupagus with my permanently blocked nose, and more recently a three month head-pounding sinusitis infection, I checked in to get things sorted. But I was early. After memorising the information notices pinned to the wall, and the cute animation about vaccinations, I caved. I picked up a Grazia Magazine. I flicked through, hoping for a nice review of a sci-fi film. What I found was so much better. Hidden between pages of celebs doing something or another, was a wonderful article. A short but sweet article that would bring back memories of my youth lost in films. An article that had a much more powerful message than the rest of the 60 or so pages of nonsense.

Here I had discovered a wonderful article by Hadley Freeman – no relation, and no ‘d’ in her surname. The article was about films of the 80s and ten things we learnt growing up with them. As I read, I thought, ‘Yes, yes, yessss!!!’

Films were a big part of my life growing up. With favourites still close to my heart like Willow and Krull, these were magical adventures, but there were also many coming of age films for us teenagers, like Stand by Me and St Elmos’s Fire. (I later found out Hadley writes regularly about 80s films.)

One of the best movies, the wonderful adventure, Willow. I would actually say this was Val Kilmer's greatest role.

One of the best movies, the wonderful adventure Willow. I would actually say this was Val Kilmer’s greatest role. (Image Public Domain)

One of the points Hadley makes is the music: ‘Power ballads are essential.’ Yes. Yes, they are. From Rocky III’sEye of the Tiger’ to GhostbustersGhostbusters’ these classic songs added to the atmosphere of the films. Without them the film isn’t the same: just a sweaty man running up some steps; or in the case of Ghostbusters, some pretty unfit dudes running around a city like crazy people dressed like painters. Power ballads are wonderful.

But, as Hadley points out, sadly they are not real. No songs play out loud as I run for the train, or when I slowly walk to the podium to give my evening talk. In my head however, they do play. As I walk down the steps to the front of the lecture theatre, I should say The Karate Kid’sYou’re the Best’ is running through my head. Really, Some Kind of Wonderful’sFalling in love with you’ sings soothingly in my mind. Surely I am not alone when I say we all play our own little power ballads?

Oh Slimer. (Image from here)

Oh Slimer. (Image from here)


Watching films as I was growing up created a world where I was swept away: the fantastic creature features created excitement and adventure; sci-fi brought the great imagination where I could do that; and the teen films included a cast which they were not to dissimilar to me.  As a quiet, shy boy who liked his dinosaurs and mythical creatures, I found films were something I could relate to. Sometimes more than other children in my class.

There were a couple of points that really stood out for me in Hadley’s short piece. These were about science and women.

For us kids of the 80s, we can see through the fake nerd actor easily. The nerds in films today are as Hadley points out “good-looking guys wearing glasses” – it is forced and unnatural (and which is one of the main reasons I dislike The Big Bang Theory). Films in the 80s had real nerds. The Goonies, Revenge of the Nerds, and the classic brat pack movies, all had real nerds. They were average looking, likeable characters, and these guys were the heros. Growing up watching these films, so many kids could relate.

I wasn't going to include this clip, but how could a post about 80s movies not include Chunk's infamous 'Trufflee Shuffle'. Many have tried to do what Chunk does so well, but failed. Even today, the truffle shuffle is one of my favorite dance moves. (Image from here)

I wasn’t going to include this clip, but how could a post about 80s movies not include Chunk’s infamous ‘Truffle Shuffle’. Even today, the truffle shuffle is one of my favorite dance moves. (Image from here)


One of my favourite actors, Andrew McCarthy played the role in the brat pack genre, including St Elmo’s Fire, The Catholic Boys, Class, and the most wonderful film, Mannequin. He was the slightly geeky nice guy who ended up the hero. Today, sadly, the hero in teen movies is the handsome, muscularly one – a character only a small handful of teenagers can relate to, while the rest are made to feel as outsiders.

The films of the 80s had something else right too: science was cool. Back to the Future, Innerspace, Explorers and others had some really cool science that made the film. One of my favourite adventure films, The Explorers is where a group of teenagers make a spaceship based on information in their dreams. They travel into space and meet aliens – for children growing up, how cool is that! These were real adventures and made science what it is – fun and something that can potentially happen. Today, science in teen films isn’t seen as a cool thing. It is kept with the nerds, hidden while the film focuses on the ‘beautiful’ main characters.

River Pheonix (left) and Ethan Hawke (right) have just used a computer programme to create a bubble. A programme sent to them in their dreams, and a bubble that they can control. Ecxplorers is such a great film. (Image from here)

River Pheonix (left) and Ethan Hawke (right) have just used a computer programme to create a bubble. A programme sent to them in their dreams, and a bubble that they can control. Explorers is such a great film. (Image from here)

Andy in The Goonies, Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice, and my first on screen crush, the beautiful Mary Stuart Masterson in Some Kind of Wonderful, girls in 80s films were simply beautiful. They were not plastered in makeup, or wearing unnaturally skimpy outfits: they were normal. And that is what made them more beautiful. These women were strong minded, confident, dressed how they wanted to dress and were themselves. For me growing up, this gave me a real view of what was beautiful. Not this nonsense of the Nuts generation, or the princess who has all the money. No. Real beauty is more than that. It is someone who is kind, funny, knows who they are, confident and is, well, just themselves.

The things I learnt from fantastic 80s films: nerds and science are cool. And women are beautiful, strong and intelligent. It is a sad fact that these two, incredibly important, messages are missing from teen films today.

One of the greatest coming of age, brat pack movies, St Elmo's Fire.

One of the greatest coming of age, brat pack movies, St Elmo’s Fire. (Public Domain)




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