Monthly Archives: September 2014

Are our Swallows ready for adventure?

Swallows prepare to migrate
We know the Swallows are preparing to migrate when we see them perched on the wires near our house

I’m very fond of Swallows, their grace and elegance in flight is mesmerising. Watching them is one of the joys of Summer. I love the way they ‘talk’ to each other, constantly, whilst they are on the wing too – though I have occasionally pondered on this propensity to ‘talk’ and eat at the same time! However, I will forgive Swallows their table manners because here in the UK they are our often-longed-for heralds of Summer.

If the weather is sufficiently mild, from early April I will scan the skies regularly, searching for the Swallows returning after their Winter sojourn to Africa. By chance it was Easter Sunday when I spotted my first Swallow flitting high in the sky over our street – that was 20th April this year and we’d been enjoying a warm and sunny few days. There is an old saying, “One swallow doth not a Summer make,” but seeing the first one is always cause for uplifted spirits and hope.

There is an old saying, “One swallow doth not a Summer make,” but seeing the first one is always cause for uplifted spirits and hope.

There are really two reasons I am pleased to see the Swallows return to our skies. The first is the happy one I have said above, the Swallows bring with them the promise that the sunny days of Summer are not too far off. The second reason is rather darker – I am thankful that at least some of them have survived the long and dangerous journey that they must endure as they migrate between here, in the north of England, and South Africa, then back again in the Spring. Starvation, exhaustion and storms mean that many birds will not survive this hazardous round trip. Flying around 200 miles each day and a total of over 5500 miles (9400 km) in each direction is an amazing feat for a bird that is only 7 1/2 inches (19cm) from its beak to the tip of its long tail feathers.

Swallows look so small against the sky as they perch on the wires
The Swallows look so small against the sky as they perch on the wires in our lane

I always feel a tinge of sadness when I see our Swallows begin to gather on the wires outside our house. For us, it means the end of Summer and the year drawing on into the colder months of Autumn and Winter. For the Swallows, it means they are about to embark on their dangerous adventure – for the young ones it is their first time. I wish them well for a safe journey and a safe return.

The Swallows’ migration route takes them from where we are in north east England, to the south coast of England, across the English Channel and down through the west of France, across the mountains of the Pyrenees and down the east of Spain to Morocco. Then, incredibly, many Swallows cross the Sahara Desert as part of their migration route, though others take a course down the west of Africa to reach South Africa.

You can find more information about Swallows and see some close-up images on the RSPB’s webpages.

I wonder, how did Swallows and many other bird species evolve to have this adventurous spirit that causes them to cover such vast distances and face such huge risks? Migration truly is one of the wonders of nature.

You can learn more on what “Adventure” means to others in this week’s WordPress Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge.

J Peggy Taylor

Old railway truck - flanged wheels

Flanged wheels for Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge

As I trundled off along our old railway path on a foraging mission for elderberries this week, I was thinking about the ‘Wheels’ theme for Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge. The old railway inspired me to think about the special wheels of railway transport. Conveniently, a little further along the old railway there are a couple of old coal trucks on a length of track. They are parked there as an historical reminder of the many tons of coal that were hauled along this railway in the past. As I passed by, I took the opportunity to look closely at the large rusty iron wheels on these old railway trucks, particularly noticing the way the wheels are shaped to ride smoothly on the metal rails.

Rusty wheel on an old railway truck
Rusty wheel on an old railway truck

Flanged wheels were a very clever invention, weren’t they? When I returned home I decided to delve a little into the history of the use of flanged wheels for railway trucks and locomotives. I discovered that it was none other than the “father of the railways”, George Stephenson himself, who in 1814 was the first to successfully use flanged wheels on the first of his travelling steam engines, “Blücher”. Named after a Prussian general, the job of steam engine “Blücher” was to haul trucks of coal from the Killingworth Colliery along the Killingworth waggonway. At the time, Stephenson was the enginewright at this colliery, just to the north of Newcastle.

Flanged wheel on an old railway truck
Flanged wheel on an old railway truck

George Stephenson was born in 1781 in the village of Wylam, just a few miles from me. He had a life-long interest in engines and engineering, particularly relating to the coal industry, eventually opening an engineering works with his son, Robert, in Newcastle to manufacture locomotives. Railways were born out of the need to transport coal over our hilly terrain where canals, as had been built in other parts of Britain, were not suitable. Stephenson’s inspiration to build steam locomotives came from the Cornishman Richard Trevithick who had been the first to design this type of engine in 1802.

The gauge of railway tracks was another aspect of this mode of transport in which George Stephenson has left us his inventive legacy. Stephenson’s gauge of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches (1,435mm) is still known as ‘standard gauge’ and is still very widely used across the world today. Perhaps I shall take my tape measure the next time I pass by the old trucks and check the track measurement!

Flanged wheels of a railway truck on rails
Flanged wheels of a railway truck on rails

The local railway trucks on our old railway path are probably around 60-70 years old. I think the engineering on these industrial workhorses still looks impressive, if a little worn. I looked at some old images of the original locomotives built by George Stephenson to compare the wheels with my ‘modern’ ones. Sadly, the original “Blücher” locomotive has not survived – I read that its parts were recycled into other engines. However, below is an image that I believe is of a locomotive similar to “Blücher”, so you can see how it looked in its day.

Beginnings (4367851468)
By Ben Salter from Wales (beginningsUploaded by Oxyman) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It has been interesting learning a little more about railway wheels and their associated history. Please do take a look at other entries in Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge this week and see what wheels others have found.

J Peggy Taylor