Thursday, 18 May 2017

'I'm going on an adventure!' Hiking in Tintagel, King Arthur's Cornwall

I need to update this blog more - probably a sentence most bloggers have written! I started this blog as a way to write for fun, as all my other writing work is paid, and therefore has to be of a certain standard. I'll still write science-based posts here, but because content that requires a lot of research takes some time to write, and because I already so much of it for paid work and my MSc, I am going to blog more for fun! Therefore, here is a heavily picture-laden post of my most recent trip to...


I love hiking, and I love wild places, and having adventures. So it will come as no surprise that Tintagel is one of my favourite places to visit in Cornwall, as it's a lovely wild village found on the Atlantic coast of England, and also home to Tintagel Castle. Although this is a popular tourist attraction, be warned - this really is a place of adventure!

For example, it's a fair treck up to the castle grounds, and that's after the walk uphill to the 'entrance' or ticket booth, where there is an entry free for access to the castle grounds, followed by a steep trek up and down sets of stairs and across a bridge. I'm glad I didn't bring the kids along to Tintagel the first time we explored it! They're a bit young to navigate the path yet, and on a blustery, wet day, one could easily be blown into the sea!

The steepness, however, allows for some breathtaking views...

Tintagel Castle

Tintagel Castle is associated with the legends of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, as folklore tells us that Arthur was born here. Apparently this is thanks to a man who wrote about Arthur's life in his fictionalised account of British history, the Historia Regum BritanniaeIn fact, the structures are mostly Norman, built in the 11th and 12th centuries.

It is also possible to climb down to the beach and catch a look at Merlin's Cave (in the top right corner of the picture below).

There is plenty to explore - easily enough to fill a day with. Tintagel is also a site of archaeological interest, with regular digs taking place, and an annual Archaeology Festival which I hope to attend this summer.

And at the end of the hike, there is a lovely cafe on site, which actually stocks my favourite chocolate and coconut vegan flapjacks!

The Rocky Valley

We made the most of our time in this part of Cornwall by going off the beaten track a bit and wandering into the Rocky Valley which is found along the Trevillet River near Tintagel, and owned by the National Trust. Over 161 different species of moss have been recorded in this area.

Trevellett River is beautiful.

Kieve waterfall is stunning, but this was the closest I could climb down to it without getting drenched!

If you are dedicated enough, and like exploring, look for the Rocky Valley labyrinths. These are carvings found in the slate there, which most likely date from the early Bronze Age (1800-1400 BC), although some archeaologists believe that they are are from the Celtic (Iron Age) period, roughly between 500 BC and AD 200, while others argue that the carvings are relatively modern, perhaps even made by one of the mill owners.

This site has become a sort of worship-place amongst pagan and New Age visitors in recent years, who have decorated it by tying ribbons to tree branches, and leaving behind rocks carved with lovers' names and small trinkets. It's a sweet little place, and one I will go back to one day.

Opposite this site is what remains of the old mill. Does the font of this sign look familiar to you??

And thus ends our adventure! Where are your favourite hiking spots? I will post more of mine soon. After all, the road goes ever on and on...

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Aquarium: The Perfect Plaice for Learning about Marine Conservation

If you're looking for an awe-inspiring, science-based activity for a rainy weekend, I wholeheartedly recommend visiting a local aquarium. We love rock-pooling in the warmer seasons, so when we can't go to the beach to find sea creatures we instead visit the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth. This is a conservation charity that aims to raise awareness of the oceans, teach people about underwater sustainability, and drive marine conservation through engagement, and there are similar projects all over the UK/world.

I can't recommend this activity enough. While museums can be stressful experiences to navigate with boisterous young children, I actually find aquariums to be the opposite in nature. This may partly be because watching fish in aquariums has been found to lower people's stress responses and improve their mood, or there may be other reasons behind it.. If you have any ideas, let minnow ;)

Visitor interaction at the National Marine Aquarium is high, with many varied activities to take part in, which are included in the entry fee. Although the entry price might seem costly at first, it covers a full year of visits, so if you visit more than once in a year it actually works out fairly cheap. You just need to attach photos of all the attendees to the receipt to be able to take advantage of this offer. It's a bit of effort but worth it in the long-run - mullet over and I think you'll agree...

The National Marine Aquarium has a simple engagement tool for children, which (from a science communicator perspective) I thought was really good. On the way in you collect a small card that pictures different sea creatures, e.g. a shark, a sea star, then as you make your way around the aquarium you collect the a stamp of each picture. My girls loved doing this as it gave their busy little hands something active to do, rather than only looking at the sights around them.

They were also really excited to see a Velvet Swimming Crab, as we saw one in the wild while rock-pooling last summer. I love watching my children's minds develop into making these links between past and present experiences, and asking questions about them: the basic foundation required for any scientist.

Watching scientists at work
Soon after we arrived at the aquarium a member of staff saw my daughters marvelling at the starfish and came over with a preserved one to show them. It was really interesting to be able to feel the sea star's bony skin, and added a great level engagement to the experience for my children. They were full of interest and questions.

Exploring a sea star up close with a member of staff

Obligatory sea star selfie
Did you know? Starfish are now called sea stars. Marine scientists decided that sea star is a more appropirate name for the echinoderm, since it is not actually a fish. As a space-obssessed family we love the new name of course!

'Look mummy, these sea stars are cuddling!'

The National Marine Aquarium is home to the deepest tank in the UK, a 550,000 litre exhibit called the Atlantic Ocean:

This photo is of Snorkel the Sea Turtle. He has now sadly passed away (and is sleeping with the fishes... Sorry).

Turtley awesome
We also saw lots of different kinds of jellyfish:

I could have stared at this incredible sight for hours

Drifting with the water...

As an added experience-enricher, we listened to Poco Drom's ethereal Jellyfish Lullabubble song when we got home (be warned: it's catchy and will also make you sleepy!):

So many fish exhibits to trawl through...

Did you know? All species of flatfish are born upright, like any normal fish. As they grow older they flatten out, sliding their eyes around their heads. Officially fishy business!

Flatfish in the ocean exhibit


This face means: there's a shark behind me isn't there...!
There were also some really cool octopi, but none of my photos of them came out clear enough to post. Looks like we'll have to go back for another visit soon then! No squidding.

I hope you've enjoyed this blog post. I've tried to fillet with as much useful information as possible, but please do post any points I've missed in the comments.

Disclaimer: Apologies for all the fishy jokes in this post. The writer admits to being gillty of making bad puns.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Happy New Year! Have you 'mist' me?

I know, I have a pun problem..

Sorry for being absent for so long, and belated Happy New Year! The thing with having kids is, they get all kinds of bugs from their little friends, and then they pass them on us when we're run down - and what parent isn't perpetually run down? - so first my 5 year old was ill with a bug over Christmas, then my 3 year old got it, and then just when we thought we were safe it struck me down over New Year. Right before I have a paper due for my MSc, of course (it's on the MMR vaccine, for those who are interested). I'm studying alongside the editorial work I do for JUNO magazine and the Eco Kids Planet articles I write.. So basically, does anyone else feel like scientists really need to move forward with that cloning technology?!

Btw if you haven't checked out Eco Kids Planet magazine yet, I recommend it. I've just reviewed it for the next issue of JUNO magazine, as well as science mag Whizz Pop Bang! which I really wish had been around when I was a kid. I'd have loved it.

The only good thing about being ill is all the reading I did over new year. I finished I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, which blew me away, and made me rethink how critical I am of the British schooling system at times. In fact I even wrote a review:

'Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human' - Malala Yousafzai

This quote is from the book I Am Malala, which tells the incredible true story about a young girl whose drive for learning can't be stopped even by the Taliban, who shoot Malala 3 times because of her outspokenness about girls being entitled to their education. 

Malala and her family face many ordeals, the kind that fill us readers with terror, yet they have an amazing spirit and unflinching principles. The humanity that seems so often to be missing from the world is found in this book, and the family's unlikely tale is riveting from start to finish. I found myself somewhat ashamed of my lack of knowledge of the Swat District that Malala calls home, indeed of Pakistan in general... All too often the West forgets the less developed world and is educated about such regions only by war... Yet these are of course also places filled with stories of love and laughter, of children's quarrels and family traditions, even if there may be terrorists around the corner.

Malala says she wrote this book to promote The Malala Fund cause to raise money to ensure equal education of boys and girls around the world, but I think it does so much more than that. Above all this book shows us the power and strength of love and integrity in the face of the worst kind of horror, that unbridled hatred and violence of fellow man. I am an atheist and this book is steeped in Muslim faith, yet I respect it all the same. Humanity comes first. I cannot wait for my own daughters to read this book - and indeed I believe we would all benefit from reading it.

Malala would paint calculus and chemical formulae on her hands with henna
Then I started reading Major Chris Hadfield's book An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, which is also inspiring, but in a different way. It's basically an autobiography about his life, about how Chris became an astronaut and how he juggled family alongside pilot training etc.. He is a very talented man and we're fans of his album Space Sessions too, which he actually recorded in space! Check out his cover of Space Oddity if you haven't already heard it, filmed on the International Space Station.

I have a backlog of posts I want to write, about new findings in microbes. stargazing, various hikes we've been on this winter,  a trip to the Marine Aquarium, a slight obsession with the TV program Sherlock... But for now I will leave you with some photos from December..

Fingle Bridge in Dartmoor

Happy little hiking elf
Full moon over the River Taw on a beautiful winter evening
For a few days in December it suddenly became very misty (now you understand the pun!), which made for some frightening car journeys and also some excellent photography stints. Does this photo remind you of The Dead Marshes in LotR too?

What are these webs upto? I haven't the foggiest
Spot the Zion
When you're ill over New Year which means you can't taste the traditional New Year pie and you have a tonne of work to do as soon as you're better as well, the best way to cheer yourself up is to dress as 100% stardust, am I right?? A splash of Bowie never hurts either! Check ignition, carry on....

100% poorly = 100% space

Friday, 25 November 2016

A Complete Guide to Spelunking! Cave Exploring With Children

noun: the hobby or practice of exploring caves

Spot the stalactites!
When you first enter a cave, your eyes take a moment to adjust to the dim lighting, the strangely still air, the glistening rocks around you, and the ethereal silence of life underground. 
If you're looking for a fun, stimulating activity for a cold rainy day, I highly recommend cave exploring. We went to Kents Cavern, an incredible prehistoric cave system in Torquay, Devon that is also an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). Kents Cavern is the oldest known human settlement in Britain - in 2011 archaeologists found a 41,000 year old piece of human jaw here, the oldest fragment of modern human bone ever discovered in Northwestern Europe.
Impressive prehistoric cave system
Visiting a cave system is a great way to learn about history, evolution, cave people, the Pleistocene period, archaeology, geology, the Stone Age - to name just a few things! In this cave scientists found the earliest anatomically modern human fossil discovered in northwestern Europe - from 44,200–41,500 years BP, and a whole load of Cave Bear bones. Isn't it strange to think that 10-foot-long Cave Bears once dwelled on these lands, over 24,000 years ago? Thankfully for our ancestors, they had mostly vegetarian diets.
The cave is of course full of stalactites, tapering structures made of calcium salts which hang down like icicles from the roof of the cave, and stalagmites, which grow in a similar way but upwards from the cave floor. Both are formed by dripping water, and they sometimes meet in the middle! We actually saw a pair that is going to meet one day, but it was protected by a glass enclosure so I didn't get a good photograph of it. You can just about make it out here:
A stalactite and stalagmite due to meet
Due to the wild and rugged nature of this vast underground cave, visitors are only allowed inside with an official tour guide. I found her to be excellent in conveying the history of the cave and answering our questions, but I will add that the tour took about an hour to complete and was on ground that was not particularly even-footed for small feet - especially in the low light. I had to carry my 2 year old for most of it, although my 5 year old managed fine, but there was also a lot of complicated information for young children, and none of the tour was tailored to them particularly. They were very patient, and managed to keep themselves from climbing the surrounding rocks (which wasn't allowed), but other children might not be.

At the end of this particular tour the guide turned the artificial lights out so we could experience the full pitch black of the cave, and, just for fun, they played loud bear noises around the cave in the dark. Needless to say, my youngest daughter was somewhat frightened by this! As I said: not really for young children. So, if you plan to take young children on a cave tour, it's worth asking about what it involves beforehand, as there is no way to opt out once you're deep underground. 
However, the tour and overall cave experience were exceptional, and I'm glad I took the children along. We will certainly being going again when they're older! Here is a photograph I took of a demonstration by the tour guide, of a source of light used by prehistoric people. It involved use of a scallop shell:
Scallop shell, illuminated by artificial light
In paleolithic times, cave-dwellers used to soak moss in animal fat, and stick it to a scallop shell to make a lamp. The tour demonstration used paraffin wax instead of animal fat. It was impressive and surprising to see just how much light the shell provided in the otherwise-pitch black cave:
Light from the shell-moss concoction
Apparently this invention could burn for almost an hour, providing light to set up a fire in the cave. I'm often amazed by the innovative solutions our ancestors came up with for their every day needs, since it's so easy now to take those skills for granted - with the flick of a light switch. My daughters were also impressed by this demo in particular. They had fun 'going on a bear hunt' and exploring the strange underground formations:

'Mummy, what's this blob doing?'
They also enjoyed sifting for gems (which they got to take home), brass rubbing pictures of trilobites and fossils, and the other themed activities in the children's area. In fact, if you have young children, I'd suggest going to Kents Cavern just for the lovely cafe and children's area for a day out!
Sifting for gems in one of the many sand boxes
There are numerous paleolithic sites around the UK and across the US that are open to the public and offer guided tours. Cave exploring is a great year-round, family-friendly activity, and if you go on a rainy day like we did you might get to see water dripping inside the cave, which is pretty cool!

If you have additional needs then check beforehand to see what the tour will be like, whether you can use a pushchair in the cave, as well as to confirm opening times and prices, and to check whether they have child-centred activities above-ground. It's not necessarily a cheap expedition for the whole family, but certainly makes for an educational and exciting one on a cold rainy day. The cave will be cool inside but not as cold as outdoor weather: Kents Cavern tends to stay a comfortable 14 degrees even in winter and summer.

You can also pair it with many themed activities, which in our household means making art (mostly cave drawings and paintings), and of course reading books! Our favorite cave exploring book is Stone Age Boy by Satoshi Kitamura, which is about a boy who gets transported back in time and lives with prehistoric people for a short while. It has wonderful explanations and illustrations of life in the Stone Age, although it may be too technical for young readers in places:

Inside Stone Age Boy
Stone Age, Bone Age by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom is similarly themed but less technical, with a nice simple rhyme scheme for young children and additional notes for older readers:

Inside Stone Age, Bone Age

We also like Ug by Raymond Briggs and Julia Donaldson's Cave Baby, and of course for older readers there is Stig of the Dump, which I reread several times as a young child. Check out this resource guide for more themed book and activity suggestions.

Of course, for older children, caving (exploring wild, non-commercial caves) is a real option, but I still recommend taking along with a guide for safety purposes. If you need something wilder for older children who can handle rough outdoor weather, now is the best time to go fossil hunting: all you need to know is in this guide.

Happy exploring!

Light from the outside world!
Obligatory cave-selfie

Incredible scenery

Model cave family