Upton Country Park – a hidden gem!

15 September, 2016

dorset18On Thursday through some magic googling I had managed to find mention of a “Nature Tots” event which sounded good.  It was running at Upton Country Park near Poole.  The park is free to get into, and parking is free, although there is a box for donations.  The Nature Tots event was £3 and turned out to be great!

We started off on a Butterfly hunt – they had hidden photographs of butterflies all the way through the park and gave each child a scavenger hunt sheet so they could tick off each one they found.  Then we headed back to the hut for some craft fun – creating butterflies – before heading out again on a real bug hunt with our magnifying glasses.  The whole session was about 2 hours long and Isaac absolutely loved it.  Isaac got given an RSPB badge at the end – it was their first ever session, of what I think now runs weekly – shame we don’t live closer!

dorset29After the Nature Tots we went for lunch in the café.  They unfortunately didn’t seem to have any kind of children’s menu, but we asked if they would do a child size portion. Someone disappeared off to ask, and came back and said they could do something for us which was nice, but shame they didn’t have something as standard as it might put many people off eating with kids.

After lunch Isaac enjoyed splashing around in the Walled Garden Splash Fountain, and climbing on the wooden play trail.

The park was really lovely, and a real hidden gem. Everything was nicely integrated in the park, feeling natural and yet fun for all ages.  We had a whole day’s entertainment for not much money and we could easily have spent more time there.

Photography Course at Witley Common

21 January, 2013

Last year I was lucky enough to win a £10 voucher for Going Digital and I felt it was time to go get a bit of inspiration and try some new things out, so last Autumn I booked myself onto their Part 2 DSLR course at Witley Common in Surrey.  The weather on the day was a bit disappointing, and did rain for a while, but we spent some time inside trying out some different macro photography with toy models and learning about different lighting conditions.

Once it did dry off we headed out into the woods to try some movement photography.  It wasn’t the best location for this as we weren’t really near anything that would have made a great subject for it, but we did manage to test our skills by pairing up and running around spinning umbrellas!

My absolute favourite part of the day though was learning some more about the use of the flash to get some really nice sharp images.  By setting the flash you didn’t have to worry so much about getting the shutter speed right for the aperture, and could just get some great macro shots.  I was particularly pleased with how this one came out of the horse chestnut.


Overall another enjoyable course and I’d recommend Going Digital – they are small classes with lots of chance to ask questions and try out your new skills.  A few more shots from the day here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/helenapugsley/sets/72157631731841571/

Breakfast with the Big Cats

21 October, 2012

Earlier in the year I spotted a Groupon offer that sounded like it was made for me – Breakfast with the Big Cats!  So I bought the voucher and got to use it this summer.

Cheetah faceThe voucher included an overnight stay at the Cheshunt Marriott hotel with dinner included.  The hotel was clean and nice.  The menu for this break was fairly limited but you could choose alternative things off the ordinary menu if you didn’t mind paying extra.  They seemed to be a bit confused about which menu they were giving us as they gave us two different ‘special’ menus at one point.  I thought it was a shame that they didn’t let you pick something off the main menu if it was cheaper than the options on the specials menu.

In the morning we made our way to Paradise Wildlife Park before it was open to the breakfast.  There we met our guide, who was one of the cat keepers, and the other 4 people who were doing the tour with us.  We also got given some goodie bags which included DVDs and t-shirts.

Our guide took us around the different big cats and told us about their stories, as well as some general information about the work that Paradise was doing.  It was lovely to have an opportunity to see the cats while no-one else was around – made for some nice photo opportunities.

Om nom nomAt the end of our tour we got to get up close with one of the tigers while our guide showed us how they perform some routine medical checks on the animals – namely feeding small bits of meat through the bars so the tiger put his feet up and the keeper could check his paws and belly!

After the tour we got to go and have a full English breakfast in the restaurant.  They couldn’t have been friendlier – greeting us and checking what we’d like to eat, and then coming back and asking if we wanted more!  There was plenty of tea, coffee and orange juice to go around too.  The food was fairly basic canteen style but it was all freshly cooked and nice.

Doesn't taste like chickenWhile we were eating breakfast the zoo opened to the public and we were free then to spend as much of the rest of the day as we wanted in the park.  One of my highlights was watching the white lions – they were just about to get their enclosure refurbished, but the male lion decided it was time to make a start.  He managed to chew his way through one of the huge logs making up his platform and totally rip it out of the rest.  It then became a rather large cat toy!

Overall I thought the deal was excellent, and the park very good.  The zoo is relatively small but they had made a lot of effort to design to park in ways that meant there was plenty of room for everyone to see, with raised walkways as well as the standard viewing windows.  It also meant that is was good for photography as there was some different angles and places you could view the animals from.

More photos from our visit on my Flickr set.

Lowry Park Zoo

8 August, 2012

We’ve been to Florida now a few times in recent years and although we love to visit some of the same old favourites we always try to find somewhere new to visit each year.  This year a friend suggested Lowry Park Zoo as she’d heard good things through her friends that had been.  Being a huge animal lover it sounded like a good suggestion to me!

The zoo is in Tampa so just over an hour from where we were staying, but the drive was straight forward and easy.  One nice thing about going was that it felt more chilled out that many of the other parks and attractions in Florida – which although we go in lower season still get thousands of visitors daily.  The car park was free to enter and there was some shade too which meant getting back in the car wasn’t unbearable at the end of the day!

Wave to the peopleOne of my highlights was the Clouded Leopard.  He was such an attractive cat, and he had a cute personality.  We went and saw him first thing in the morning which meant he was up and about and he kept coming over to us to say hello!  The conservation status of these cats is vulnerable, so while not quite as rare as some of the other leopards, their population numbers are declining.

In addition to wandering around the zoo they do offer other things to see and do.  There are a couple of rides for children – a log flume, a carousel, a small rollercoaster and a train.  They also had what was named a safari ride which is a narrated tram tour around the park.  This was the only ride we did while there and in hindsight I wouldn’t have minded missing it!  We waited for around 5-10 minutes as there only seemed to be one tram going around.  The tram did go around parts of the park not directly visible from the paths in the zoo, but you didn’t see anything different so you wouldn’t miss animals by not going on it.  As I volunteer in a zoo, and have visited rather a lot over the years, I didn’t find any of the basic commentary told me anything I didn’t already know.  However, I am sure for children the ride was a fun addition.

Flying tigerThe zoo also put on various talks and shows throughout the day.  The one we went along to was with the tigers.  We’d walked past there earlier in the day but the cats were asleep in the cave at the back and we didn’t really see them so I hoped by going back during a talk they may be more active.  However, they remained sleepy!  It was a good talk though and the keeper told us about the two male brothers living there as well as general facts about the species.  Luckily just before we went home I nipped back to see if they had woken up and was delighted to find them playing together.

There was also a few animal attractions where you could choose to pay a few dollars extra for some unique experiences like hand feeding a giraffe or riding a camel.  I liked the fact that people could make their own day and it kept it interesting for all ages and interests.

Overall it is somewhere I would definitely recommend.  The zoo was really nicely laid out with about five distinct areas, and each was easy to wander around without missing anything.  The animals all looked well cared for and in good accommodation, and signage and things around the park was kept up to date.  So although the zoo clearly doesn’t have the income of the larger places like Busch Gardens it was a really nice place to visit.

More IBM On Demand Community success for Marwell Wildlife

1 August, 2012

I’ve written other posts on here about my volunteering with Marwell and some of the success I have had through the IBM Community programmes, and last year was another great year. 

ODC12In addition to my regular volunteering on weekends, I organised a team of 32 IBMers to go up in November last year to help out with a conservation project for the day.  We picked up spades and headed out to the chalk grassland behind the main car park. Our aim was to plant very young trees – called tree whips – between two existing copses of ancient woodland, creating a woodland corridor across the centre of the grassland, and recreating a historical feature once present in the field shown on maps dating back to 1640.

The work is an important part of Marwell’s woodland restoration programme and has a number of important benefits for the landscape and biodiversity utilising it, such as: providing a connecting corridor for wildlife to move between two fragmented copses; and providing an area of young woodland between a hay field and a restored wildflower meadow.  The works also helps Marwell to meet key conservation objectives, as well as improve the landscape for the local community.

Grant cheque presentationLast year IBM celebrated it’s 100th birthday and in celebration offered us the chance to apply for some extra special Centennial Grants for charities and organisation we volunteered for.  I was successful in securing both a team grant for Marwell and one of these special Centennial Grants, both totally around £8000.  The money is going to help Marwell with a new area of the park in development – an aviary – and in particular in support of the education aims of the exhibit so will benefit many people.

West Midlands Safari Park

28 April, 2012

While we were up in the Midlands back in March we went along to the West Midlands Safari Park.  It was on my list of places to visit as I’d heard about their white lions, although I wondered whether being a Safari Park rather than a zoo would mean there wasn’t the same kind of photographic opportunities.

The entrance price seemed very reasonable, especially as if you buy tickets online you got a free return visit.  The park is laid out with the safari area which you drive through, and then there is an area where you can park and walk around the other attractions.  There is a small theme park / rides area, but they are mainly for the younger guests, and you have to pay extra to go on the rides so we didn’t bother.  There are also some more animals you can wander around, including penguins, hippo, meerkat and what looks like quite a new lemur woods. 

WMSP 2The last time we went to a safari park we’d lost some parts of the car after driving through the monkey enclosure, so my husband wasn’t overly keen in taking his car in to another safari park!  However, there isn’t monkeys to drive through here, and there are routes you can miss certain animals if you don’t wish to drive through them all.

The safari area is really well laid out, with the roads twisting through different enclosures.  I liked the fact that the road in most places is two or three cars wide so there was plenty of room to stop for photographs, or to pull around people when you were ready to move on.  Quite a few of the areas you’re free to open windows and even feed some of the animals – they’ll sell you the food at the entrance to the safari.  We had fun watching some of the giraffe and zebra up really close, and found it funny when a zebra put his head through the window to say hello!

Who dares to disturb my sleepI was really pleased to see that there were a lot of different big cats.  In a couple of the areas (cheetah and white tigers) there was additional fencing between the road and the animals, but you were close enough to the wire, and the animals were far enough away, that it was possible to still get some nice photographs without the wires causing a problem.

Eat up dearSeeing the lions was one of my highlights as there are two massive prides – one of the normal lions and one of the white lions.  They both seemed to have been fed relatively recently so were all enjoying midday snacks!  Due to the fact the road wound its way around the enclosure there was plenty of opportunity to see them up close and take some nice pictures.

The safari area took about an hour and a half to drive around.  It wasn’t too busy when we went which was good as there was lots of time to enjoy it without feeling rushed, or having your view blocked by anyone else.

Overall I think the West Midlands Safari park was well worth a visit.  I still do prefer the leisure of walking around somewhere at my own leisure, and being able to return to areas at different times of the day to see different things, and for that reason do prefer a zoo to a safari park.  From a photography perspective you don’t have so much time to get a photo set up, and you can’t always move yourself to get that perfect angle.  However, you can utilise the window frame and things inside the car to anchor yourself and try to avoid camera shake a little.

More of my photographs from the visit on my Flickr set.

Drayton Manor

22 March, 2012

On Tuesday we wen to Drayton Manor in Staffordshire.  It is part theme park and part zoo, and was fairly close to where we were staying.

Black leopardWe first wandered around the zoo, as the rides don’t open up until later.  It isn’t a huge zoo, but had quite a mix of animals.  I particularly liked seeing the two gorgeous black leopards and the very pretty Geoffroy’s cat with his spotty back and stripey tail.  It wasn’t an ideal place for photography as the bars were quite thick, and I didn’t have my proper camera with me anyway.  We also went along a little later and managed to catch the meet the keeper session and see the penguins being fed.  It was a shame that the keepers didn’t bother to acknowledge anyone was even standing there.

After wandering around the zoo we went on the rides.  They have tried to cater for all ages, and had a variety of rides, from a stand-up rollercoaster for the older kids to a Thomas the Tank Engine train ride for the small ones, and family favourites like a log flume which everyone could enjoy.  The thing I found rather frustrating is that on many of the rides they insisted I took my glasses off.  I’ve worn glasses since I was 4, and on huge great rollercoasters in the US where you hurtle face down towards the ground so I hardly think I’ll get into any trouble on a log flume!

The park currently costs £36 to enter plus £3 for parking which is rather expensive.  Luckily you can offer find deals, and we managed to a get a buy one get one free offer.

Overall it was a pleasant enough day out, but I much preferred Chessington which we went to last year.  The parks are both aimed at a similar audience, but Drayton Manor felt like less care had been spent on keeping it looking fresh, and the staff were no-where near as friendly.

There are some more photographs on my Drayton Manor set on Flickr.

Bosworth Hall Hotel & Spa

21 March, 2012

Having got the week off work we booked a two night break to Bosworth Hall Hotel & Spa.  It was an offer that appeared on the Travelzoo website for £55 and included dinner, wine, breakfast and use of the health club on both nights which seemed like a good offer as the original price was around three times that.
Bosworth Hall Hotel
The hotel is just on the outskirts of Market Bosworth which is a small town in Warwickshire.  A five minute walk takes you into the town centre, and so made for a pleasant evening stroll.  There is also a large park area directly opposite the hotel grounds, so plenty of areas to get some fresh air.

The hotel itself is an old 17th century house.  The bedrooms were varied – naturally they use the glamorous large rooms with four-poster beds in the brochures!  The more normal rooms were still pleasant, although not very large.  We did have a nice view over the back lawn and the room was quietly situated which was good as the walls seemed thin.

Dinner in the restaurant is three courses – salad buffet or soup for starter, carvery with a choice of two meats, or a couple of alternatives, for main course and then a choice of desserts in a buffet style so you could have a little of each.  The restaurant seemed to get quite busy and so you are advised to book a time slot – they catered for outside visiting parties and there was a coach load in for an early dinner both nights.  Included in our deal was a bottle of wine both nights, but as neither of us drink wine I asked if we could swap ours for a bottle of water.  They kindly agreed even though apparently the water was more expensive – I dread to think of the quality of the wine considering all we got back was a single portion bottle of water!  Overall the food was nice, and as it was buffet and carvery style you could help yourself to the portion you wanted, however it lacked a sense of luxury that the hotel surroundings portrayed.

We did use the health suite facilities while we were there, and they were of a reasonable size.  I also had a massage treatment which was nice, but fairly basic.  The term ‘spa’ to me conjurs up images of relaxing and luxurious surroundings, but overall although nice it again lacked a certain something that made it feel special.

Overall, it was a nice two day break and definately worth the £55, but I think had you paid the supposed full price you may have been disappointed.

A few more photographs on my Flickr set.

And now for something completely different!

16 March, 2012

I bought my first SLR camera back in the Summer of 2008, and I’ve tried over those 3.5 years to try new things and really get to grips with using more than just the basic settings.  I’ve come a long way from the early days, never now use Auto mode, and always shoot in RAW.  However, recently I’ve realised that I’ve stalled a bit and I’m taking lots of the same sort of photographs – mainly the animals at Marwell Wildlife because it’s convenient as I volunteer there.  I’m determined to try and learn some more about the functions and features of my camera which I have not yet explored, and try taking photos of something different… although I’ll never give up the big cats!

A while back I joined an online photography group – Talk Photography (TP) – in order to participate in some of their face to face meetings, be inspired and try some new photography.  I’ve been to a few meets in previous years, but not made the time to look again until recently when I discovered the Basingstoke Toggers, who were all people from the group living near here and who seemed to be fairly actively arranging local meets.  Within not long of posting a message I had a couple of friendly welcomes from them and we’d set up a meet down in the Winchester area.

With the exception of a few random, unprepared shots on holidays, and some rather drunken cheesy snaps of friends, I’ve not done any night photography so I was quite excited to be going to try some out.  I armed myself with torch, warm clothes, tripod and my camera and headed to a local Starbucks where I was meeting the others.  After some quick introductions of people who hadn’t met up before, we headed to Bushfield Camp which is an old deserted army ground.  There is little left there but the skeletons of some former buildings, but it made a good location to try some wire wool spinning and light painting.

There are plenty of articles on the Internet that can tell you about wire wool spinning and taking night photography, so I won’t go into details here but I was amazed at what you could do with some wire wool and a whisk!  We were extremely lucky that local pro photographer Andrew Whyte came along on Wednesday and as well as impressing us all with his photography, and sharing many tips, he spent a lot of time helping out and I really appreciate his kindness and assistance.  Check out his amazing star trails here and his blog for hints on how to get started.

My first photo of the evening turned out completely black, despite me thinking I had set everything I had been advised to!  I hadn’t realised that the ‘bulb’ setting of my camera needed me to keep my finger pressed down on the button for the whole time I wanted the photo taking – I had assumed I kind of clicked it to start and clicked it again to finish.  Whoops!  However, after that and some more help from my fellow photographers my next few shots came out reasonably well and I was pleased with my first attempts.

I only came away with a few photos, but had an absolutely amazing evening and learnt a lot.  I really look forward to getting out, meeting others, trying this and other new things again.  I’ve treated myself to a remote trigger too for the camera which should make my next attempt at night photography a little easier!

Light Painting 4

South Bank, London

25 February, 2012

6 PodsWell my resolution to try and use my camera more this year and write more on my blog doesn’t appear to be going too well!  Yesterday I had to go up to London for work, so I decided to catch a slightly earlier train and take a stroll along the South Bank before heading to the meeting.  The IBM offices are right on the South Bank so it is a perfect location, when the sun is shining, to see some of the sights.  I also didn’t feel out of place with my camera as there were lots of other tourists around.

I started out heading towards the London Eye.  I’ve never actually been on the big wheel, but can imagine it has a great view when the weather is clear.  I didn’t have much time today, so I just took some photo’s of it.  It was actually a reasonable day to get some shots as the sky was a mix of sunshine and clouds, so it wasn’t a totally plain background, but also being February the sun wasn’t too high in the sky making it not too bright, so you did get some of the blues of the sky and not a blown out background.

Sea Gull in LondonI then wandered on towards Westminster Bridge to see the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.  After a few fairly standard shots of the River and sights in the background, I had a bit of fun taking a photo of a sea gull who was standing on the wall, with the Houses of Parliament blurred out in the background.  I did get a few witty comments from passers by!

I then headed East along the River Thames.  There were quite a few photo opportunities along this part of the River – from street entertainers, general scenery, candid shots of the other tourists to a couple of events that were going on including a number of painted egg artwork pieces along the river which formed part of the Fabergé Big Egg Hunt which is currently going on around London.

Sand constructionI wandered along to just past Blackfriars Bridge which is currently where the first station to span the River Thames is under construction.  Just along near there I was rather surprised to find some people creating sand sculptures!  I didn’t expect to find a beach in the centre of London.

I only had about an hour so I didn’t spend much time anywhere, but it was a good location for all sorts of photography and close to Waterloo station which is where the train stops for me.  I’ve been a bit nervous in the past about taking my camera out on the streets as I feel a bit conspicuous, but this was a great location because everyone else was doing the same!

More photographs on my London set on Flickr.

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