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markos9

markos9
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Member since: 07.02.2009

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      31.12.2010 11:40
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      Highly recommended for those who wish to learn more about garden wildlife.

      Britain's wildlife is under threat. Intensive farming, habitat destruction, and (possibly) climate change are reducing the number and variety of our native wildlife at an alarming rate.

      Nature reserves are an invaluable resource in protecting our wild creatures but even these havens are not immune to 'development', especially in these times of austerity when there's less money about to spend on 'non-essentials' such as protecting biodiversity.

      Fortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, gardens cover more acreage than all of Britain's nature reserves put together. Our gardens offer a variety of habitats and can contain a surprising variety of wildlife within them. An aerial view of any town will show graphically how important these green spaces are, since our gardens adjoin others, creating large swathes of important habitat for our native wildlife. Gardens may even hold the key to the survival of some species. Our bees are in real trouble, and gardens are vital resources for them.

      To make our gardens even better for animals and birds is easy and can give us many hours of enjoyment in watching their antics, whilst learning more about them.

      'Garden Wildlife', published by the Wildlife Trust, is an excellent introduction to what lives in our gardens and has been written to encourage people to take an interest in THEIR wildlife, gaining enjoyment for people, and protection for the wildlife itself.

      This is a large format book, filled with lavish, colourful paintings of insects, birds, reptiles and mammals with informative descriptions of each animal. Although not a 'coffee table' book, this is a lovely book to pick up and browse through.

      The lengthy introduction sets the scene; describing how important our gardens are, showing that there is much more variety of animals and birds present than many would imagine, and explaining how the book is laid out. There is also a small section on how to attract more wildlife to the garden (basically, by providing more and varied habitats that different species need - a log pile for insects, for example).

      After the introduction, the book moves to the various types of wildlife. Firstly insects are described, followed by reptiles and amphibians, birds, then mammals. Each creature is illustrated with a large painting, and described with informative text detailing size, habitat, food and habits (such as in what season they will be encountered). Both the common and scientific names are given for each species.

      The paintings are in general of excellent quality, highlighting all of the important identification features that will allow the correct species to be identified. Occasionally, a poor painting has been used, that bears little resemblance to the real world animal, but these are few and far between.

      One criticism that can be levelled at the book is that only one picture is shown per animal. This is understandable due to the restrictions of space, but does not, therefore, highlight sex differences or seasonal plumage, neither does it show butterflies with their wings folded (a pose often encountered with these lovely insects).

      Despite this small 'fault' with the book, this is an excellent introduction to garden wildlife. The identification of species is likely to enhance peoples' enjoyment of their garden and (hopefully) encourage an interest in managing their garden for the benefit of wildlife - the aim of the book, after all.

      The colourful nature of this book means that it can be used with children, too. The big, bright pictures are easy to use and, although the text is a bit small, adults can help the kids to get the most out of this fabulous resource. Developing children's interest in wildlife is vital if our native species are to be protected over future generations.

      The book is available from Amazon for £4.99 in paperback or £10.00 in hardback. Proceeds from the book will be used by the Wildlife Trust to protect Britain's native flora and fauna, so buying this book will help both local and national wildlife. If you or your children want to know more about the animals and birds that live in your garden, this excellent book should meet your needs perfectly.

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        27.12.2010 13:59
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        Blue Sails' popularity says it all: this is a great place to stay.

        My girlfriend and I love the sea and if we can, try to get as close to the water as possible if we holiday in a coastal area. For our recent holiday on Anglesey, we found the ideal cottage. 'Blue Sails' is a romantically named, quaint old fisherman's cottage that is, as the picture above shows, right on the shore.

        The cottage is located only two miles from the pretty seaside town of Beaumaris. Following the B5109 past the castle and out of Beaumaris, a row of stone cottages is reached within a mile and a half. The turning for Blue Sails is immediately after the last cottage. This is a very narrow single lane track and Blue Sails is found at the bottom. There is a large car park here at the head of the cottage's garden.

        There are steps leading down from the garden to the house. These are very steep and a bit slippery. It is easy to see why the cottage is advertised as 'not for the elderly or infirm'.

        Once inside the cottage, we realised that the website's description and photos did not do Blue Sails justice. This is a very old house that is simply full of character. Owned as a holiday home for many years, the owners have filled the rooms with personal items, giving the impression that one is visiting someone's home. Nice touches such as quality furniture, books, and extensive maps of the area, give the cottage a real 'lived in' feel.

        The cottage is deceptively large. There is easily enough room for six people to stay, without getting under each others' feet. The front door opens directly into the dining room. This is reasonably sized, with seating for six at a quality dining table. The room has lots of dark wood furniture, giving a classy ambiance.

        The kitchen is next; small, but well organised, with a separate wash room. All the facilities that one would expect are here: microwave, washing machine, fridge/freezer, as well as some decent crockery and cutlery.

        There is a small bedroom next to the kitchen fitted with bunk beds. Lots of children's books line the shelves.

        The kitchen leads through to the centre piece of the house; the living room. This is the biggest room in the house again with seating for six people. As elsewhere, the furnishings are of a high quality, with some lovely old wooden pieces. There are two main features of this room; the patio doors, and the log burning stove. As we visited in November, the stove came in very handy. Sitting in front of a real fire, snuggled up on the sofa watching the writhing flames consume the logs, was very relaxing and something we looked forward to each night.

        Upstairs are two bedrooms and a small bathroom. The 'lived in' feel of the house continues upstairs with paintings (some originals), most with a nautical theme, as expected of its location. The beds are comfortable, warm, and cosy.

        Overall, the cottage is an extremely lovely place to spend time. Its quaint rooms, lovely furnishings, and little welcoming touches left by the owners will captivate visitors who stay here. The cottage does, of course, have one big advantage that most other cottages do not have: the sea!

        Blue Sails is situated right on the beach overlooking the Menai Straits and the forbidding mountains of Snowdonia beyond. At high tide, the rushing waters lap the garden wall. The patio doors lead to the patio, which is safely paved to seat the chairs and tables made available for use in good weather.

        In poorer weather, the sitting room provides stunning views: the restless sea can be watched in comfort from inside. Sheltered from the elements, it's possible to enjoy stormy weather, with the waves crashing against the shore, as much as sunny weather, when the patio doors are open to the glorious sea air.

        All of the bedrooms share this sea view, as does the dining room. Listening to the rising and falling sea in bed is a lovely way to drift off to sleep.

        The beach here is sandy and open, with walks in both directions for miles. Blue Sails' wonderful location means that visitors can step out of the garden straight onto the beach.

        The wildlife here is extensive. From the house, the birds of the straits can be seen: eider ducks, mergansers, scoters, divers and grebes can all be encountered. At high tide, some of these pass by just in front of the garden wall, giving superb views: this is a bird watcher's paradise holiday home. It is likely that grey seals will be seen, too; the usual sighting is of a large head, bobbing in the waves, staring curiously at the humans staring back from shore.

        This is then, a wonderful cottage in an idyllic setting. It is not, however, without problems. As already mentioned, the steps are steep and slippery, needing care to traverse. Once in the house itself, however, care is still needed. The cottage shows its age with low doorways: the bedrooms and kitchen in particular. For someone over five feet six, and a bit clumsy (i.e. me) Blue Sails' doorways can be a bruising experience. I lost count of the times I banged my head because I forgot to duck. Shorter, less clumsy people will have fever problems, I'm sure.

        The other problem with the cottage is its popularity! Checking on www.cottage-choice.co.uk/cottages-Blue-Sails-JPV.shtml, shows that Blue Sails is often booked up a year in advance. Hiring the cottage for a week costs between £400 and £800 depending on the season. Shorter breaks are available.

        I can thoroughly recommend this cottage for lovers of old style accommodation, and people who love the sea. This is a wonderful location to stay at any time of the year. Seemingly isolated, yet only a couple of miles from Beaumaris, day to day cares and worries simply melt away when staying here; everyone will enjoy the peace and tranquillity of Blue Sails.

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          19.12.2010 12:59
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          A wonderful place to explore on a nice summer's day.

          At the south western corner of the Isle of Anglesey, there is a vast area of sand dunes and conifer forest known as Newborough Warren. Covering over 1,500 acres, this huge mosaic of trees, marsh, and shore has been designated a National Nature Reserve due to its important rare flora and fauna. Perhaps the most spectacular part of this wonderful landscape is Llanddwyn Island: a fitting crown for one of Anglesey's most visited natural wonders.

          The area is easy to find. Follow the A4080 from Menai into the village of Newborough. At the 'Premier Stores', take a left following the brown tourist sign for 'Llys Rhosyr'. The straight road soon has signs for the beach, and at the end of the road, after a couple of miles is a huge Forestry Commission car park.

          Parking is not cheap (£3.50), but there are at least decent facilities for visitors here. Toilets and disabled toilets are on site, and there are plenty of bins for rubbish. There are picnic tables here, too, but I would advise avoiding these are there are much better places to eat on the beach and the island.

          The car park is on the edge of the forest, surrounded by huge conifers on all sides. This is one of the few places in Wales where red squirrels can be found, as they have recently been reintroduced to Anglesey. This is also the site of an enormous raven roost. About 1,000 of the largest crows in the world choose the forest to spend the night. If you are here at dusk, you may see the air fill with large black birds; their cronking calls disturbing the quiet of evening, until they finally settle down for the night.

          From the car park, there is a sandy path leading to the beach. After only a few hundred yards or so, the path leads to a crest; from being able to see only dunes and trees, now a beautiful vista opens up before the eyes.

          It is worth stopping here to enjoy the view. Straight ahead is the shore. This award winning beach forms a curved bay, with miles of clean pale golden sand that invites one to take their shoes off and let it tickle the toes. The water here is a clear, deep blue; on a sunny day, reflecting the azure colour of a cloudless sky. The sheltered waters of the bay offer safe swimming, so much nicer than a public pool.

          To the left across the Menai Straits loom the mountains of Snowdonia. These huge peaks, some over 3,000 feet high, dominate the skyline and may be snow capped for much of the year. Mighty Snowdon itself lies at the extreme left of the range, its 3,580 foot bulk the highest point in England and Wales.

          To the right is Llanddwyn Island. In contrast to the golden sands of the beach, the island is a striking mix of green and white, with marram grass covered dunes lying over the white rock that rises above the sea. Several buildings, including a lighthouse can be seen on the island, but the overall impression is one of isolated beauty.

          To get to the island is a pleasant half mile walk along that wonderful beach. Following the curve of the bay, a small spit of sand is soon reached; beyond this is the island proper. The island is usually accessible, being cut off at the spit by only the highest tides, so visitors can be assured that they won't be stranded for any length of time.

          Crossing the spit, visitors can now explore the island. The first unusual sight is several huge, smooth, lumps of rock. These are 'pillow lava' formed when ancient volcanoes erupted under the ocean. As you stand next to them, reflect that these rocks have stood here for over 600 million years! Llanddwyn Island is one of the best places in Britain to see evidence of Earth's ancient history, literally set in stone before one's eyes.

          A steep climb gets one to the top of the island. Here, the rocks give way to grass covered sand dunes which show clear evidence of grazing. The 'culprits' will soon be found: Welsh Mountain Ponies. These are an ancient, hardy breed, introduced to keep the grass under control and are genuinely wild. They will not allow themselves to be touched, moving slowly away if approached, but are happy to pose prettily for photographs from only a few yards away. They are gorgeous.

          The landscape of the island is simply stunning. Rolling dunes contrast with jagged limestone outcrops. Steep cliffs frame sheltered bays, some of which can be reached by careful scrambling. The up and down nature of the island means that there is always another corner to explore, and visitors will be out of sight for much of the time doing so. This small island has a wide range of features, seemingly out of proportion to its small size.

          To the north of the island is the lighthouse of Tŵr Mawr. Built in 1850, this has recently been reintroduced to service, standing mute guard over the southern tip of the Menai Straits. Visitors cannot access the lighthouse interior, but can get to and around it to get close views.

          From the lighthouse, the highest part of the island, the views are expansive with many miles of Anglesey coast, as well as the Lleyn Peninsular visible across the sea. Wildlife is abundant here, with several small islands hosting breeding sea birds in the summer; the appropriate named 'Bird Rock' houses one percent of Britain's breeding cormorants.

          Other birds to be seen include the noisy oystercatchers, their distinctive calls, black and white bodies, and bright orange bill seeming to shout 'look at me!' Other, quieter birds include turnstones and sandpipers, and terns can be seen fishing in the bay during the summer. Grey seals may be seen in the water, or hauled out on the rocks for a rest.

          There is plenty more to explore on the island as this place has been inhabited since the 5th Century when St. Dwynwen lived here. Her sad story of unrequited love and betrayal led to her living as a hermit on Llanddwyn. The ruins of a chapel still stand, a place of pilgrimage during the 16th Century. Other old buildings remain, too. Cottages for pilots were built in the 19th Century. Two of these have been restored, with one housing an exhibition of local wildlife. There was a lifeboat crew stationed here, too, in the 19th Century. Bizarrely, a cannon was used to summon the crews to service. This can still be seen near the cottages.

          There are plenty of quiet places to have a picnic on the island. I recommend the bench by the stunning Celtic cross near the chapel. The views here are superb, much better than the car park tables (once on this wonderful island, those tables will seem a world away), and the sound of the sea on the rocks, the calling of the sea birds, and the sight of those lovely ponies will make even the simplest meal, seem a real treat.

          After having a meal, exploring the island fully, and saying goodbye to the ponies, it will be time to head back to the mainland. The Isle of Llanddwyn will leave visitors with memories that last much longer than the few hours spent there; I know I will be returning to this magical place.

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            13.12.2010 15:06
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            A replacement for TomTom's charging lead.

            On a recent long drive, my TomTom SatNav lost all of its charge, despite being plugged into the car's cigarette lighter. Examination of the charging lead showed that it was no longer supplying current to the SatNav (the lead's connection had been damaged, so its failure was not unexpected).

            A check on the manufacturer's website showed that TomTom wanted £12.95 for a new one. Reasoning that the two connections (USB and 12V car socket) should be relatively common, I decided to see if a cheaper version was for sale elsewhere.

            A quick check of Amazon showed that alternative leads are available. I chose this "GPS Car Charger" which cost only £3.95 including delivery. A bargain (if it worked). Delivery, from the Amazon reseller, took only a couple of days.

            Amazon had listed a range of compatible SatNav deviced for this lead, including my TomTom One. When choosing a non-standard lead for a piece of equipment, it's always worth checking the specifications to make sure that the lead is not supplying the wrong current or voltage. I did this even though the website listed my SatNav as suitable (you can't be too careful). The lead's specification was just right, so I plugged it in to the car and TomTom. Both connections fit snugly without requiring excessive force to insert. I'd left the SatNav uncharged, so was pleased to see the SatNab power up straight away (a green light on the lead illuminates when charge is being supplied to the device).

            Upon connecting it in the car, one advantage over the manufacturer's lead was immediately apparent; the cable was just the right length. The coiled design of the lead (like on a landline telephone's receiver) meant that when relaxed, the whole lead was only about 18 inches long. This stretches to a full five feet, if needed.

            The lead supplied with my TomTom was about six foot long meaning that I had to wind the spare length of cable around air vents etc. to avoid potentially dangerous tangles with the car's gear lever or steering wheel. Having a coiled design, this charger is perfect for my car; the lead simply runs from 12V socket to TomTom without any slack at all.

            Having said that, at five feet long, some car owners may find this lead is too short to fit their vehicle. My car is a small supermini so the charger fits well. A much bigger car might require a longer lead.

            I've used this several times now, and keep it in the glovebox when not in use. It works perfectly and its small size means that it stores neatly away. For only £3.95, this is a bargain and a really effective replacement for the 'official' version. If you're looking for a replacement TomTom charging lead, I can highly recommend buying this one, just remember to check whether it's long enough for your car.

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              04.12.2010 14:12
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              A great way of enlivening a kids party.

              During the planning of a recent children's party, I decided that some helium filled balloons would add a bit of excitement to the event. Children love playing with buoyant balloons, and having a load for them should keep them occupied for a while, I thought.

              I wanted a lot, but when checking the prices, I realised that to buy pre-filled balloons was going to lighten my wallet considerably. I decided on a compromise; buying the balloons and helium separately!

              I found a 'D30' disposable helium cylinder for sale at www.click4balloons.co.uk for £17.95. This size of cylinder, about 15 inches tall, holds 13.4 litres of compressed helium which is enough to fill thirty standard sized balloons. Since prefilled balloons can cost several pounds each, I reckoned that this was quite good value for money. The value for money is lessened somewhat with delivery, making £22.90 in total. This works out at 76 pence per balloon fill, so not too bad.

              Delivery took only a few days and then I was in charge of a small pink(!) gas cylinder. I quickly got some balloons ready (although the party was days away, I just had to TEST the cylinder first, didn't I?)

              I was glad I did, since filling the balloons was slightly tricky. The cylinder has a valve at the top which must be turned anti-clockwise to open it (half a turn's enough). The valve outlet has a rubber nozzle over it, onto which the neck of the balloon is placed. To release the helium from the cylinder, the rubber nozzle is pressed down. When I tried this, I could not get it to operate at first, then the helium came out fast, half filling the balloon in a couple of seconds.

              With practice, it's quite easy to use; grab the nozzle with the balloon fitted and gently press straight down. Helium is then released gradually. For a faster flow rate, the nozzle is simply pressed harder. I'm glad I tried it out beforehand, rather than in front of a gang of expectant, cynical kids!

              After filling, it's a good idea to close the valve; relying on the nozzle to keep the cylinder sealed is likely to result in a prematurely empty cylinder and disappointed kids.

              Now the fun could start. Having a cylinder of helium meant that I could fill whatever type of balloon I wanted, as well as letting the kids have a go under supervision (be prepared for them to let go of the balloon without tying a knot in the neck - helium filled balloons really FLY when released.)

              On the day of the party, I prefilled about ten balloons. For best results, the manufacturer recommends filling the balloons one to two hours before use. I found little reason for doing this, the balloons worked well whether they'd just been filled or left for a couple of hours. Don't try to overfill the balloons. After several successes, I became overconfident and tried to see just how big a balloon I could get. All I managed to do was make my ears ring! The sound of the exploding balloon was the loudest I've ever heard, perhaps due to the helium it was filled with! Not pleasant.

              I'm pleased to say that the party was a success, with no further explosions. We were able to fill several balloons for each child, allowing them to pick the shape and colour, before filling the balloon for them or allowing them to 'assist'.

              We had a competition to see who could make a balloon and basket and balance it in mid air by adding and subtracting weight. Balloon tennis was great fun too with a just-buoyant helium balloon chucked from child to child each attempting to hit the wall or the ground in front of their opponent.

              As it was nice weather, we even went fishing with the balloons! Tying a helium filled balloon to the line on a fishing reel allowed us to release the balloon into the air, up fifty yards or so, before reeling it back in; great fun, even though we must have looked a bit insane to the neighbours.

              At the end of the party, we had the most satisfactory conclusion: exhausted kids! All from a small helium cylinder and a few cheap balloons.

              Finally, a word of warning: there was a lot of interest in inhaling the helium to sound like Mickey Mouse (the speed of sound in helium is faster than in air due to helium's lower density, giving a higher pitched voice). I did not allow this as it can be dangerous. Whilst the odd breath of helium will not cause any harm, when you breathe helium, you're replacing air in the lungs and starving yourself of oxygen. Repeated tries at this can lead to dizziness, loss of consciousness and even death: not something we want to encourage kids to take up, in my opinion.

              Overall, I was really impressed with my purchase. With enough helium to fill thirty balloons, this is reasonable value for money, and having the cylinder gives real flexibility on how to use it. I can definitely recommend this if you want helium balloons at your party.

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              • More +
                27.11.2010 17:06
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                The best guide to birdwatching in North Wales

                Although relatively small in area, North Wales has a huge variety of landscapes and habitats within its borders. From fertile estuaries, to hanging oak woodlands, from lush valleys to alpine-like mountain peaks, this land is justifiably popular with walkers and tourists. The many different environments means that North Wales supports a vast and varied population of birds, too, some of which are found in greater densities than anywhere else in Britain.

                Rarities such as black grouse and chough are relatively common whilst the region's rocky coasts and islands support a significant proportion of the UK's breeding seabirds. Birdwatching is justifiably popular here, but the sheer number of places to visit means that one may have a whole site to oneself, even in a popular area.

                This book, Best Birdwatching Sites in North Wales, has been written as a guide to the area for birdwatchers who want to get the most out of a visit here. Written by local experts, Alan Davies and Owen Roberts, the book contains all of the information required to fully explore the region.

                The book contains full details of 58 of the best birdwatching sites in the region. The sites are listed alphabetically, and a map showing their location is shown on the inside back cover of the book.

                Excellent directions are given; parking instructions, and any facilities on site are listed. As well as a location map, a detailed map of the site (which can cover a large area) is also shown.

                So far, the book appears to be similar to may site guides on the market today, albeit covering a relatively small area, but further reading shows that this book is something a bit different.

                A full list of possible species is tabulated, together with the chance of seeing each particular species, shown as a percentage. This simple feature is tremendously useful as it allows the birdwatcher looking for a particular bird (say, the rare black-throated diver) to select the site that gives the best chance of encountering one. The ability to compile a list of probabilities like this is only possible if the writer has extensive experience of each site in all seasons: such as the authors of this book.

                Many birds are not present all year round, but visit to winter or breed. The book shows exactly when to find each species, again by the use of the tabulated list.

                As stated above, many sites cover a huge area and a birdwatcher could wander all day searching for a specific species. Fortunately, the book's maps show exactly where the site specialities may be found, reducing the searching required and increasing the chances of a rare encounter.

                Disabled birdwatchers will be pleased to note that each site's disabled facilities are fully documented, and where such facilities don't exist, the nearest location to the site is given: really useful information that will reassure visitors that they are not wasting their time going to somewhere that they can't safely explore.

                Despite all the useful information, and tables of birds to see, this is not a dry, boring book that's difficult to read (although the small font used may be a bit hard to read for some). North Wales has some of the most beautiful scenery in the UK and many of the sites covered in this book are spectacularly scenic. The authors' passion for the outdoors is evident in the descriptions of the places they describe. Lovely depictions of spectacular rocky coasts and high mountain valleys abound, together with a smattering of geological and historical background resulting in a book that is not only informative and useful, but also very readable indeed.

                This is not, however, a coffee table book, replete with full colour photographs of exotic species. Rather, the book focuses on providing textual and graphical information, with only the odd hand drawn image to illustrate the area's birds. This is not a criticism; the book succeeds on every level and colour pictures are definitely not needed here.

                Using this book has enabled me to see a larger range of species that I would otherwise have done so. The small format of the book means that it can be carried on birdwatching expeditions. Doing so is like having an expert guide by one's side, silently pointing out the highlights of the region's birds. Many people visit North Wales to watch birds, and this little book should be considered an essential purchase.

                The book is available from NHBS.com for £15.95. This is expensive, but the wealth of information and guidance contained within its 192 pages means that it is worth every penny to the keen birdwatcher.

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                • Celestron CPC 1100 / Telescope / 122 Readings / 118 Ratings
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                  12.11.2010 12:10
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                  Perhaps the best option for the amateur astronomer looking for an eleven inch scope.

                  In amateur astronomy, if nowhere else, size matters. The larger a telescope is, the more detail it can detect, and the brighter an object will appear in the eyepiece. Amateur telescopes range from less than three inches in diameter up to a whopping fourteen inch diameter, with an exponential increase in price.

                  With increasing telescope diameter comes increased length. For telescopes larger than ten inches or so, the Schmitt Cassegrain type offers the best portability due to its compact shape. For my latest telescope, I decided on the Celestron CPC 1100. As the name suggests, this telescope has a primary mirror diameter of eleven inches.

                  This scope is at the larger end of the amateur range so, although it is just about portable, handing the scope requires a significant amount of body strength.

                  The CPC 1100 has a superb specification. Telescopes are usually supplied with a 'finder' scope to aid alignment. The CPC 1100's finder is really good quality and very usefully sized, at 8x50. Apart from the large eleven inch diameter, this telescope is computer controlled to an amazing extent. The GPS connection helps with alignment, allowing for an easy and quick start up. The scope is also supplied with Celestron's excellent 'StarBright XLT' optical coatings which ensure that almost all the light that reaches the telescope is focused and not reflected away. The very sturdy tripod mount means that even in light winds, the view through the eyepiece is rock steady.

                  *** Setting up the telescope ***

                  The telescope is supplied (and in my case stored) in two parts: optical tube and tripod. Firstly, the sturdy tripod must be set up at the observation site. This is not too difficult as it weighs only 19 pounds and is easy to carry and set up. The optical tube is another matter. At 65 pounds, this bulky (and expensive) tube is difficult to manhandle and line up on top of the tripod. The carrying handles help, but the tube can move within its mount, potentially unbalancing the whole assembly. I'm always relieved (and out of breath) when the optical tube is aligned on top of the tripod.

                  The magnification of telescopes is varied by the use of eyepieces of different focal length. One the scope is set up, a wide angle eyepiece should be fitted to the scope (this gives the widest field of view; helpful during the alignment process).

                  *** Alignment ***

                  After the difficulties of setting up, the easy alignment comes as something of a relief. Previous computerised telescopes required entry of the observer's location, pointing north, then careful levelling. The scope would then 'slew' to several 'guide stars' and the user required to centre them in the field of view. This required knowledge from the user of where the bright stars in the sky where exactly, as centering on the wrong star (very easy to do) caused the alignment to fail.

                  The Celestron CPC 1100 is much more sophisticated. The telescope is switched on and left to level, align, and detect the time and location (from the GPS module). The user then simply points the telescope at ANY object in the sky and centres it in the eyepiece. This process is repeated another two times and the scope is aligned and ready for use.

                  This is the easiest and quickest alignment process I have ever seen on a computerised scope and requires no knowledge of the night sky from the user. Within a couple of minutes, the scope can be used and the on board computer keeps the viewed object permanently centred in the field of view ('manual' scopes have to be adjusted every minute or so as the sky turns, moving the target out of the telescope's view).

                  *** Using the telescope ***

                  With the telescope aligned, all that remains is to choose a target from the scope's library of 40,000(!) objects. Unlike many computerised scopes of smaller diameter, the CPC 1100 has the power to actually see all of these objects (with a smaller scope Pluto, for example, would be simply too faint to detect through the eyepiece).

                  The library contains all the planets, named stars, Messier and Caldwell objects, as well as the NGC catalogue. Many objects appear in multiple catalogues as well as having unique names and where this is the case, the object can be searched by any of its names.

                  Once an object has been selected, the telescope slews to the target, and will hopefully appear in the eyepiece's field of view once the scope has stopped moving. In my experience, the object almost always appears in the view of my wide angle eyepiece: excellent accuracy.

                  This automated searching is what computerised telescopes were designed for and this Celestron is one of the best. The scope also offers a 'night tour' option which shows the best astronomical objects visible at that time, one by one.

                  One word of warning, however, the telescope motors are not silent. Astronomical observing sessions are usually at night (obviously! Unless observing the sun, which must be performed with a high quality solar filter fitted to the scope, otherwise blindness will result) and the noise of the slewing motors is noticeable (but not loud). If observing into the small hours in summer, however, any close neighbours may possibly complain.

                  *** Optical quality ***

                  Once you have an object in the field of view, what does it look like? Well, the Celestron CPC 1100 has an enormous light gathering capacity almost 2,000 times that of a naked eye! This allows for incredibly faint objects to be seen. Ghostly nebulae, faint supernova remnants, and galaxies so far away that their light left for Earth before the death of the dinosaurs, can all be viewed with the CPC 1100. The telescope captures so much light that the detail available to the observer is much greater than with smaller scopes. For that Wow! Factor, the CPC 1100 is difficult to beat in the amateur market.

                  The focal length of this telescope is very high at 2,800mm. This has an effect on the magnifications and fields of view available with a selection of eyepieces. The magnification of a telescope/eyepiece combination is given by:

                  Magnification = focal length of telescope / focal length of eyepiece

                  The largest common eyepiece focal length is 40mm so this gives a 'minimum' magnification of 70 times. This is actually very high and means that the field of view of this telescope is quite narrow. The telescope is great for high magnification views of the planets, star clusters, and galaxies, but misses out on the wonderful, wide angle views, of sights like the Pleiades offered by telescopes of smaller focal length.

                  Despite this limitation, I find that the CPC 1100 offers the best view of any telescope I've ever used. The large size offers excellent resolution and the brightness of the images makes viewing even faint objects (which one often has to strain to see with lesser scopes) a pleasure.

                  Jupiter is high in the sky at the moment and I used the CPC 1100 recently to view it. The images obtained, even at high magnification (x200), were simply superb. The planet appeared as a slightly squashed ball, hanging in the black sky. The coloured bands which encircle the giant planet were easily seen and clearly separated. The famous 'great red spot' was easily visible, too. Jupiter's four large moons could be seen, strung out in a line around the planet's globe. To me, these moons, tiny in comparison to their host planet, appeared as tiny balls, rather than the dots of light I've seen with other scopes.

                  Viewing Messier 13, the largest globular cluster in the northern hemisphere was simply jaw dropping. At low magnification, this condensed ball of over one million stars looked like a glowing sphere of light. With high magnification, however, the image was transformed. At x200, the cluster filled the eyepiece. Individual stars on the edge of the cluster were resolved from the mass of central stars, giving an almost 3D view. The experience gave me the impression I was hovering over this huge cluster, watching it slowly revolve below me. Amazing!

                  I have also taken some photographs with the scope using my DSLR. These are of reasonable quality (and improving as I learn), but potential owners should not that, if serious, long exposure, photography is the reason for purchase, a 'wedge' is required at a cost of around £340.

                  *** Problems with the CPC 1100 ***

                  I have found very few problems with this telescope. The first is, of course, its manoeuvrability. This is not for the faint hearted: moving an expensive, bulky optical tube, can be a bit scary and back pain-inducing. When observing, I never look forward to packing the scope away again.

                  The alignment does, on occasion, fail. This means that the process must be repeated. Every time this has happened, the repeat alignment process has been successful, so this causes a delay of a couple of minutes at the most. When this happens, I'm never sure if I have done something wrong or whether the scope is at fault.

                  The final problem is typical of computers: crashes. On several occasions, the scope has 'crashed' resulting in me switching off the scope and starting again. I don't know what causes this, but it does not happen enough to be intrusive.

                  *** Conclusion ***

                  Hopefully, you will have gathered that I'm impressed with my CPC 1100. This is a superb quality, computer controlled telescope with a fantastic specification and the ability to show the user sights he or she will never have seen before.

                  This performance does come at a price, however. The scope cost £2,649 from Telescope Planet! Readers already gasping, will be appalled to discover that the scope is not even supplied with a power supply (you must supply your own car battery charger for this purpose). This is, of course, an extremely high price to pay, but with telescopes, you do get what you pay for. Hopefully, this telescope will last many years and continue to give me breathtaking views of the heavens.

                  If you are in the market for a high end amateur scope, the CPC 1100 should be considered. For users who want a smaller, less expensive telescope, however, Celestron's CPC range starts at £1,449 for the eight inch scope. This has the same specification as the CPC 1100, with a smaller mirror.

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                    06.11.2010 14:52
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                    Better than reading a paper book, in my opinion.

                    Amazon recently released their third generation of e-book reader: the Kindle 3. The Kindle 3 is an impressive step forward from the previous generations, offering improved ergonomics, performance and screen quality.

                    There are two models, the WiFi version is £109 and the 3G which has a subscription free 3G connection (as well as WiFi connectivity), for £149. This is, on the surface, extremely good value for money but potential purchasers should note that this price does not include a case. Amazon will sell you a case separately: £29.99 for a leather cover, £49.99 for a leather cover with built in reading light, or cheaper options from independent suppliers. I have the WiFi version, whilst my girlfriend has the 3G version, so I can comment on both models.

                    *** Look and feel ***

                    Amazon's Kindle 3 does look stylish. The graphite colouring suits the sleek design making it look modern, even futuristic. There is a small border around the six inch display, with the keyboard beneath and page turning buttons on either side of the device.

                    The keyboard's buttons are tiny. They are 'proper' buttons, so move when pressed, so have a positive feel, but anyone with large fingers is going to find selecting the right key difficult.

                    At only 7.5 inches by 5.3 inches, the Kindle 3 is about the size of a paperback book. Whereas, however, a typical paperback would be one or two inches thick, the kindle is less than half an inch thick weighs only 247 grams: much less than most paperbacks.

                    The Kindle 3's size and weight means that it fits in the hand nicely, with the page turning buttons easily to hand. Its light weight means that it can be held in the hand for hours at a time. Compare this to the hardback version of 'Under the Dome' by Stephen King. At 1.3Kg, I found this a challenge to hold for any length of time.

                    *** Ease of use ***

                    Using the Kindle 3, for anyone used to using a computer takes a bit of getting used to as there is no mouse. There is a small direction controller which consists of four arrows with a central button. This allows navigation through the menus, with the central button being used to select the required function. This works, but is nowhere near as effective as a mouse would be.

                    The Kindle 3 is faster than its predecessor and in use does not appear sluggish. There is a slight delay between pressing a button and the action being carried out, but this does not detract from using the device at all.

                    There are only a few menu screens, with useful 'Home', 'Back' and 'Menu' buttons which means that within a few minutes, new users will know their way around the Kindle 3 without even reading the manual (I'm male, so only read the manual when writing this review).

                    Books already downloaded can be accessed from the home screen and stored in 'collections' for tidy storage. The Kindle 3 remembers the last page it was on before being turned off, so with this e-book reader, there is no need to remember which page you were on, or to search through a load of menus; simply switch the device on and continue reading. This simple little feature is a real enhancement to the reading experience, in my opinion.

                    *** Shopping with Kindle ***

                    Shopping with the Kindle 3 is easy. Wallet drainingly easy! Pressing the 'Menu' button shows 'Shopping with Kindle' as the first option. Pressing this connects the device to the Amazon store and one simply has to search through the books, find one to buy, and click on the 'Buy with 1 click' button. That's it. The book will be on your Kindle within about thirty seconds. Shopping on the Kindle 3 is, however, a bit slow. The WiFi version takes a few seconds to load Amazon's homepage, and navigation through the site seems sluggish. When connected by 3G, however, this sluggishness becomes so slow as to be almost unusable.

                    Despite the ease of use, the best way to browse the Amazon website is by using your computer. The high resolution monitor and that really useful mouse makes shopping on the computer much quicker than on the Kindle. The same 'Buy with 1 click' button is pressed. This time a message pops up 'Do you want to download direct to your Kindle'. Pressing yes downloads the book directly to the Kindle and is again ready for reading in less than a minute.

                    The prices of e-books on Amazon varies significantly. All should be cheaper than the print versions, and there are hundreds of classics available for free. This is, perhaps, one of the best reasons for buying a Kindle 3. Many of the old classics, that we've never managed to read, can be downloaded for free. Dickens, Shakespeare, Collins, Doyle, and many more are waiting to be downloaded and enjoyed. I've read some old favourites and am looking forward to reading others for the first time.

                    New users should check out manybooks.net. This website has 33,000 free e-books available for download in Kindle format. An amazing resource.

                    *** Reading experience ***

                    Of course, an e-book reader is only as good as the experience it gives the reader, and this depends, to a large extent, on the quality of the screen. The Kindle 3's screen can only be described as superb. Utilising 'e-ink' for its display, this 'electronic paper' produces text that looks just like print on a book page. The 'e-ink' consists of dark text on a light background and works (like a book) by reflecting light, rather than by emitting light like a computer monitor. Reading by reflected light does not cause eyestrain and the Kindle can be used in brilliant sunlight (unlike the iPad). The text size can be altered, with the smallest size being equivalent to typical text in a paperback.

                    Much has been made, during reviews of the Kindle 3, of the slight delay when pressing the turn page button. The screen blanks then goes black, before the next page is displayed. This takes only a fraction of a second, however, and is actually faster than one can turn a page on a real book so is not a problem at all. In use, the process becomes almost unnoticeable.

                    When reading a book, I occasionally come across a word I don't recognise. With the Kindle, this is not a problem. The built in Oxford English Dictionary means that the meaning of any word is available at the click of a button. This excellent feature enhances the reading experience, since I'm not left wondering what the word means, nor am I shuffling off to look it up on Google.

                    The best compliment I can give the Kindle 3 is that, when using it, I forget that I'm using an e-book. The quality of the screen, and ease of page turning, renders the device almost invisible to my mind. Once absorbed in a good book, I enter the author's world, and cease to be in my own house; the Kindle ceases to be there, just the words. This is only possible due to the quality of experience that the Kindle 3 offers. It just works brilliantly as an e-book reader. Due to its size and weight, the fact that the screen is perfectly flat (unlike the bent open pages of a book), and the quality of that screen, I think that the Kindle 3 gives a better experience for reading novels than a paper book. I never thought I'd say that!

                    *** Extras ***

                    The Kindle 3 offers several free 'extras'.

                    The first is an MP3 player. MP3 files are downloaded to the Kindle 3 via the computer. A couple of clicks activates the player, and a random order of songs is played through the inbuilt speakers. The quality is surprisingly good and the volume acceptably loud. Personally, I don't use this feature as I don't like music playing when I'm reading, but for some, having music playing on their e-book may be useful.

                    The Kindle 3 can read to you! The text to speech option will, with compatible e-books, allow you to sit back and have someone read to you. This may be of use to some, but personally, I'd like to hear narration by David Attenborough or Judy Dench, not listen to something that sounds like an American astronaut, broadcasting from the moon!

                    The final extra is the 'experimental' web browser. This is truly awful. Browsing the internet without a mouse is difficult and the slow access speed of the Kindle 3 makes this even more painful. This feature should only be used as an emergency until Amazon improves both the speed and controls for the browser. Well, they do describe it as experimental!

                    *** Conclusion ***

                    As I'm sure you've realised, I'm a real fan of the Kindle 3. It offers a superb reading experience, an amazing quality screen, and the ability to be reading a new book within a minute. The Kindle 3 holds up to 3,500 books and battery life is up to a month so even on a long holiday, I can read without rationing or loading myself down with a tonne of paper.

                    I will not stop buying books, however, since the small monochrome screen is no replacement for a full colour, full size non-fiction hardback (of which I have hundreds). The Kindle does not look as good on a book shelf either! Despite this, my days of buying paper novels are officially over.

                    If you are thinking of getting a Kindle 3, my advice is to stop thinking and buy one. It really is that good.

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                      30.10.2010 14:30
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                      Safe, effective, easy to use plant food.

                      Successfully growing plants and flowers to their full potential relies on providing the plants with the right conditions, and all of the nutrients and minerals that they need to thrive.

                      Sunlight and water are (usually) provided by the weather, whilst many of the trace elements plants need will be found in the garden soil. The most important of these are phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium, which are utilised by plants, in significant quantities and are incorporated into the plants' structure as they grow.

                      Other elements are required in only minute quantities, but are, nevertheless, essential and plants will not thrive in their absence. These include copper, molybdenum, iron, and zinc.

                      The act of gardening, unless composting is undertaken, gradually removes nutrients and elements from the soil, as dead plants are removed and discarded. Over time, the soil becomes depleted of these elements and plant growth suffers as a result. This means that many plants will grow reasonably well if placed in the right spot in the garden, in reasonable quality soil, but most gardens and their plants will benefit from supplementary feeding.

                      An ideal way to do this is to compost one's garden waste, but not every gardener has the time or space to devote to this task. Another easier way is to utilise a proprietary plant food.

                      The rather immodestly named 'Miracle Gro' all purpose concentrated plant food is such a product. The container boasts that it will 'grow plants twice as big!'; an ambitious claim, and one which I was interested in testing.

                      This liquid feed costs around £4.00 for a one litre, easy to carry, container. A capful (25ml) is added to a watering can (4.5 litres) of water, so each 1 litre container will last for forty uses.

                      The product is easy to use; the manufacturer have made a real effort to keep the product from spilling by use of a clever design for the cap/measuring device. This has an inner container into which the product is measured. The outer container captures any spills, preventing the user getting chemicals on his or her hands. This is fortunate since like many garden chemicals, Miracle Gro contains some relatively unpleasant compounds.

                      I can be quite clumsy; despite this, I have not managed to get any Miracle Gro on my hands, at all. After dispensing the Miracle Gro, a quick wash under the garden hose cleans the cap ready for it to be replaced on the bottle. This makes Miracle Gro quick, easy, and safe to use.

                      Once in the watering can, the can is filled with water, and the contents applied to the plants whilst watering. Using this approach, both the roots and the foliage are fed (although the foliage should not be watered in strong sunlight as damage to the leaves may result).

                      For best results, Miracle Gro should be used every week or so. The product contains all of the nutrients mentioned above, including the trace elements. This ensures that each plant gets all of the elements required for growth, whether the soil in which they have been planted, has been depleted or not.

                      So Miracle Gro is more convenient than composting, easy to use, and relatively safe. But does it work?

                      Well, this year, I used Miracle Gro extensively on some of my flower beds. Others were left unfed. My admittedly unscientific experiment had some interesting results. The borders fed with Miracle Gro produced flowers with a larger average size, and increased numbers of blooms than the unfed borders. There was certainly a difference, but it was nowhere near the 'twice as big' change that the bottle promised. This suggests to me that my soil is of reasonable quality; the unfed plants grew pretty well so those fed with Miracle Gro had only a slight advantage.

                      Perhaps with very poor quality soil, Miracle Gro would do 'what it says on the tin', but my experience could not confirm the product's claims.

                      Despite this, I was happy with the results. My flowers were big, strong, and colourful, and clearly better than those that had not been fed. The bottle lasted all summer, and at only £4.00 was good value for money, having a visible effect on my blooms.

                      If your plants need feeding, then you should consider Miracle Gro all purpose concentrated plant food. It's no 'miracle' but it does work.

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                        24.10.2010 19:21
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                        A scientific yet emotional tour of our solar system.

                        In early 2010, a revolutionary series about our nearest neighbours in space was launched: Wonders of the Solar System. This series was unlike any other, combining the hard scientific facts (orbital motion, gravity, planetary atmospheres etc.), but tempering the science with a real sense of wonder.

                        The writer and presenter, Professor Brian Cox is a physicist, but also an ex-popstar (keyboard player in D:ream) and has a deep passion for the subject and, despite his many years studying astrophysics, has never lost his sense of awe for the subject. His presentation style is authoritative, but also romantic: he knows the science behind a total eclipse, but despite this, he is still almost moved to tears, whilst watching an eclipse during one episode. He has a wonderful turn of phrase when describing astronomical features that seems at odds with his scientific qualifications, but it works. The result of this scientific, yet 'starry-eyed' approach is a series that really does show the wonders of the solar system.

                        After enjoying the series, I approached this book with some trepidation. Often 'books of the series' are simply an attempt to cash in on the programme's popularity, and do not add anything to the subject. Thankfully, this is not the case for this book, it makes an excellent companion volume to the TV programme.

                        The book closely follows the TV series, with a chapter for each TV episode. In writing the book, Professor Cox had the opportunity to expand on the series in a major way. The science behind the solar system, explained in some detail during the episodes, is expanded significantly by the book. The text is never difficult to understand, however, Professor Cox's skill in presenting complex subjects in an easy to understand way, carries over to his writing: his beautiful turns of phrase, so effective at conveying the sheer wonder of the night sky, translate perfectly to the written word. Despite the increased depth of subject covered by the book, the reader is guided gently towards understanding and appreciation of this 'astronomical' subject.

                        The series and book are, in part, a celebration of human exploration, both manned and unmanned. Cox explains that, of all the humans that have lived throughout history, those alive today are the first to have the privilege to actually reach the worlds we have been wondering about for millennia. This perfect timing gives us the chance to do more than wonder, but to discover as well. Data from humanity's Spacecrafts is used extensively in the series, and again, in an expanded format, in the book.

                        One of the most effective techniques used in the series (and one used by planetary scientists during research) was, when describing a feature of the solar system, visiting an area of the Earth that contained similar features: Icelandic geysers showed how similar processes on Enceladus must work, the Namibian desert was a good analogue for the Martian landscape, and the Grand Canyon was used to showcase the (much larger) Valles Marineris on Mars. In the book, these amazing, earthly landscapes are given much more attention and some of the photographs shown were taken by Cox himself.

                        There are now literally millions of images taken by telescopes and space probes and the book contains many of the best. These are full colour, often full page, of superb quality and enhance Cox's writing, helping to explain the features being described. As the book is new, some of the images have never been seen in print before (images from the space probe Cassini, orbiting Saturn and its moons, for example). This large format volume works as a coffee table book, but it is so much more than that.

                        Subjects covered in detail include the Sun. This ball of gas one million kilometres across, enables life on Earth to exist (allowing us the chance to look up and marvel at the enormous forces generating such heat for billions of years) and the chapter "Empire of the Sun" shows us how and why the Sun exists. Topics such as nuclear fusion, and spectroscopy (splitting white light into its constituent colours), are explained simply with excellent diagrammatical aids. The cosmic coincidence that allows us to see a perfect solar eclipse is detailed (the sun, 400 times larger than the moon, is 400 times further away, meaning the size of each disc in the sky is identical) as is the ephemeral nature of this natural spectacle (the moon is moving further away, in the far future, total eclipses will no longer happen).

                        The most taxing question facing humanity today, does life exist anywhere outside Earth, is given its own chapter and Cox's writing captures the sheer difficulty of this challenge, but the potential rewards of success, perfectly. Environs that may harbour life, such as the ice moon Europa and, of course, the planet Mars are discussed, and highlighted with superb images showing that these distant worlds may possibly contain extra-terrestrial organisms currently unknown to us. I found this the most fascinating chapter of all. Finding life elsewhere would have profound impact on Earth, even if only one alien microbe was discovered.

                        I thoroughly enjoyed the TV series, and in some ways, enjoyed the book more. The enhanced detail, stunning still images, and insights into how the series was produced make for an absorbing read. Its 256 pages are packed full of information, celebrations, possibilities, but above all, wonder. Of the many books on the subject that I have read, this scores highest for capturing the reader's attention and possibly converting him or her into a lifelong astronomy fan. I can find nothing bad to say about this book, and much to praise. If you are looking to learn more about the TV series, or want to get a sense of the wonders of the solar system, this book is for you.

                        The book is available in hardback from Amazon for £9.00.

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                          23.10.2010 14:30
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                          One of the most beautiful and varied coastal walks in North Wales.

                          Between the Isle of Anglesey and the mainland, at low tide lies a vast area of treacherous sand known as Traeth Lafan. Before bridges linking Anglesey to the rest of Wales were built, the only way across was to walk; many people lost their lives trying to do so.

                          Thankfully, today there's no need to walk across the Menai Straits, and Traeth Lafan, is left undisturbed for the huge numbers of waders and seabirds that live in this seemingly empty landscape: the area is so rich, that moves are afoot to have it designated as a Marine Nature Reserve.

                          At any time of the year, this part of the coast is a beautiful place to visit. One of the best ways to see the sights is to follow the walk I describe below.

                          The walk starts in the seaside town of Llanfairfechan, easily reached within a minute of leaving the A55 at Junction 15. The town has good facilities for visitors. There is a large, free car park on the seafront. Toilets and disabled toilets are nearby as is a children's play area. There are two cafes here. The first, at the car park's edge, makes superb coffees. Unfortunately, its opening times are erratic and the main street café is more reliable.

                          Many people choose to remain in the town, it's easy to see why. The view is spectacular. To the left is Anglesey with the pretty town of Beaumaris easily visible. Further out is Puffin Island. This massive lump of rock rises 190 feet above the straits and is home to colonies of breeding seabirds in summer. To the far right is the huge limestone outcrop of the Great Orme. Llanfairfechan's beach is clean and sandy; a great place to make sandcastles.

                          For me, the attractions of the town, with its pretty promenade and grand old Victorian seafront houses, hold my attention for just a while. There is far more to see and do in the walk to Morfa Madryn.

                          From the car park, a concrete path follows the shore in the direction of Anglesey. This is suitable for wheelchairs for a while. Here, the visitor has a grand view of the waters of Traeth Lafan, which, on a rising tide, will be filled with seabirds, drawn close by the rushing waters.

                          This area is a birdwatchers' Mecca: great and red-throated divers, common scoters, Slavonian grebes, red-breasted mergansers, and black guillemot can all be seen in the winter whilst terns, gannets, fulmars, puffins, and guillemots fill the air with colour and sound during the breeding season. Grey seals live on Puffin Island and can often be seen here, porpoises or even bottle-nosed dolphins might be spotted, too.

                          After about half a mile, the path reaches a small wood and becomes rougher as it enters an area of saltmarsh. This location is quite special; the emerald green saltmarsh, contrasting with the cobalt blue sea, is all around and, in the winter, full of birds. On a sunny day, the flocks of teal, wigeon, and shelduck give a glorious display, with their multicoloured plumages glowing in the sun. When they take off, there are so many birds that the air seems filled with noise, activity and colour.

                          At the saltmarsh's edge is a shingle spit. At high tide, this is used by wading birds to roost whilst their feeding grounds are flooded. Here can be found one of nature's most spectacular battles. The waders roost peacefully, hardly moving, except to flex their wings, or swap the leg they're standing on. Suddenly, however, the peace is shattered as a marauding peregrine falcon stoops at enormous speed towards the birds. Havoc ensues, as all birds take to the air. Somehow, the falcon chooses one target amongst many, and follows its prey's swoops and turns, faster than the human eye can follow.

                          I always find myself rooting for the wader as the fastest animal on the planet hunts down its victim. Most of the time the bird gets away, but occasionally the wader is caught, quickly dispatched, and carried off to the falcon's cliff top home above the town: this is nature in the raw.

                          At the top of the saltmarsh is the Local Nature Reserve of Morfa Madryn. The reserve, despite its wonderful wildlife attractions is rarely busy, and the visitor may have most of this large area to his or herself. This is a wonderful place to visit at any time, but really excels during high tide. The reserve has several hides, each looking over a different habitat.

                          The first, near the entrance, overlooks Traeth Lafan and the shingle spit. Here, sheltered from the often cruel winds that blow down the straits, the visitor can sit in comfort and watch the antics of the waders and wildfowl, and trying to spot the seabirds on the open sea. Staying here for any length of time gives a privileged glimpse into the workings of the seas and tides, and how wildlife has adapted to live with the twice daily changes.

                          As the tide recedes, the birds become more restless, finally flying off: flocks of knot, curlew, dunlin, oystercatcher, and grey plover, rising in formation, before dispersing over the vast sands. Soon, where thousands were visible, is an apparently empty desert. But, if one looks carefully, the birds are there, spread out eating frantically before the tides can cover their feeding grounds once more.

                          The other two hides look over a pair of saltwater lagoons. These bunded pools are sheltered from the winds, and provide secure feeding and roosting grounds for yet another range of birds. Here, the birdwatcher can often get close views of special birds such as the little egret, it's 'Persil white' plumage amazingly clean despite the bird feeding in mud. The electric blue plumage of the kingfisher can be seen, too, and not just as it flashes past. The fence posts close to the hides provide feeding perches for the birds. They concentrate on looking for small fishes, oblivious to people concentrating on watching them!

                          Lapwings breed here; their cute, fluffy chicks can be seen following their doting parents during spring and summer. If any intruder dares to approach the chicks, the lapwings attack - driving off even large animals like the sheep that roam the reserve. Other birds include the elegant pintail duck, ringed plover, snipe and grey wagtails. There is always something to see here, no matter what the season, weather, or tide and the comfortable hides mean that a pleasant hour or so can be whiled away watching some of the wonders of nature, whilst remaining dry and warm.

                          This is a linear walk, so once finished at the reserve, the walker must retrace the two mile route back to Llanfairfechan. Since the area's inhabitants react to the ever changing tides, however, it is likely that a different range of sights will greet the walker on the return journey.

                          This is not a long walk, but is one that is full of interest. The gorgeous scenery and pleasant walks both to and around the reserve, are enhanced by the huge variety of wildlife that may be encountered. The walk is fascinating for birdwatchers, but hopefully, I've shown that this is a walk that can be enjoyed by all. North Wales has some wonderful coastal spots and this is one of the best.

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                            17.10.2010 18:33
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                            Walking fans will find lots to interest them here.

                            Britain's national parks contain a high proportion of the best scenery, wildlife, and cultural heritage that these islands have to offer. Protected for future generations by the National Park Authorities, these are havens of peace and tranquillity, for humans and animals alike. There are fifteen national parks, spread throughout England, Scotland and Wales, with the most recent, the South Downs, designated only this year.

                            Naturally, the national parks act as magnets for keen walkers; many millions of people visit them every year to pit themselves against the most challenging walks, to follow in the footsteps of famous walkers of years gone by, or simply to enjoy the scenery as countless numbers of people have previously. That the national parks exist, so that we can do so should be celebrated.

                            This book, Great Walks of the National Parks was written for just this reason, to celebrate the accessible beauty and wonder that the national parks enable. The fifty two walks in the book have been carefully chosen by the author to lead the walker through some of the most beautiful areas in Britain and to show some of their most interesting features. First impressions are extremely good as this large hardback is professionally bound and printed and has a stunning image of Sweetworthy Combe in Exmoor gracing its cover.

                            As the parks vary in nature, so do the walks in the book. Covering coast, rivers, lakes, moorland, and high mountains tops, there are journeys here for people of all ages and abilities. The author has been considerate to peoples' needs in writing this volume: this is not just for hardened walkers who can cope with 20 mile slogs over the mountains (although there are walks this strenuous described within its pages). Many of the walks are gentle and relatively flat so anyone with any interest in visiting the national parks will find something to suit them here.

                            Routes in the ten oldest national parks are described here (the South Downs, New Forest, Cairngorms, Loch Lomond, and The Broads are not covered), with each park having four or five of its most special walks showcased. Some of the most iconic walks in Britain are contained within the book's 320 pages.

                            A book like this deserves and requires good photographs of the walks it describes. The photos here are thankfully, simply stunning. Anyone who knows anything about photography understands the difficulty in taking the best images (the photographer must await the right time, weather conditions, be in exactly the right place, then compose the photo, and take the perfect exposure).

                            It is obvious that a huge amount of effort went into taking the photos for this book. The layout of the book makes the most of them, too. Many are full page or half page and allow the reader to immerse him or herself in the place being described. The photographers have captured the nature of each walk: autumn colours, dynamic weather, breathtaking compositions, and ephemeral watery and misty panoramas, make the most of already beautiful locations. The photos in this volume would make a superb photography book.

                            The walks themselves are each split into two sections. First is a description of the route to be followed with extremely precise directions given. All of the expected information is here, such as parking, length, ascent height, difficulty, and any special precautions that should be taken (such as use of a compass). A reference to the appropriate Ordnance Survey Landranger Map is given, too.

                            In this section, the only two weaknesses of the book are to be found. In an attempt to save space, the author uses 'L' and 'R' instead of 'left' and 'right'. This may save a few characters but interrupts the flow of the writing, making it slower to read. Not ideal, in my opinion. Despite this, the routes are easy to follow and it is hard to get lost when every stile, path, and (it seems) even every rock are highlighted as identifying features.

                            Helping with the route are the hand drawn maps: these are also extremely detailed with the route clearly identified. Here, however, is a second problem. Each walk has at least two maps showing the route. I find this confusing as one has to refer to two diagrams when working out how the route is structured, again not ideal.

                            The second part of the text is much more readable. Here, the author takes us on a journey through the landscape and discusses its history, natural history, geology, and beauty. Numbered on the maps, the special features of the walk are fully described: whether the history of an old castle, the recent history of a human conflict, or the ancient geological processes that gave rise to a cliff or promontory, all are wonderfully elucidated for the reader.

                            Some may find this information superfluous, but for me, it makes the book. I find that knowing about each feature of a walk makes it more real for me: knowing about, say, the geology and mythology of the 'Devil's Kitchen' at Cwm Idwal, or reading about the struggles ramblers endured during the 'Kinder Trespass' adds interest to the walk and I find myself enjoying it more because I understand more about where I am.

                            This book succeeds on two levels. The readable text and stunning photographs successfully celebrate the national parks' inherent beauty and very existence, whilst the detailed route descriptions enable walkers to safely undertake even challenging walks in these special areas.

                            This is a wonderful book to simply browse through. On the long winter evenings, next year's walks can be followed through in the mind's eye, the route can be imagined and planned, in preparation and anticipation of the real thing to come. I can highly recommend this book to anyone planning a trip to any of the ten national parks covered in this volume.

                            The book is available from Amazon from only £4.50. A bargain.

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                              15.10.2010 16:55
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                              A showcase coastal park on Anglesey.

                              The Isle of Anglesey, situated at the north western tip of Wales, has some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in the UK. Its ancient, Precambrian rocks have been battered by the sea for millennia, forming rocky headlands, sandy beaches, and intimate little coves. Much of Anglesey's coast is accessible to the tourist.

                              One of the easiest parts of Anglesey's coast to access is Penrhos Coastal Park. Forming part of the Anglesey Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the park is signposted from Junction 2 of the A55. This is a superb resource for locals and tourists alike. Set in 200 acres, the park has a variety of facilities and habitats together with stunning views across an expanse of the Irish Sea.

                              The park is very visitor friendly. Entrance is free, as is parking in the huge car park. The large picnic area adjacent to the car park has plenty of tables, overlooking the shallow, fertile waters of Beddmanarch Bay. There are toilets and disabled toilets right next to the car park, too. Many of the park's paths are tarmac and suitable for wheelchairs.

                              Several small ponds are situated close by. These are havens for wild waterfowl such as mallard, coot and moorhen, but are also a home for many ornamental species of duck. Any spare sandwiches will be gratefully received by these colourful, ever-hungry birds!

                              Many people will be content to stay at the beach near to the car park. The beach is clean sand, which is uncovered for much of the day. The sheltered waters of the bay rarely face the full force of any inclement weather, and the sea is often calm, with a deep cobalt blue colour which lights up in the light of even a winter sun.

                              The bay is a haven for wildlife, although it is often hard to spot. Staying here for several hours will give the viewer an insight into the restless nature of the tides, and a glimpse of how the wild creatures cope with the sea's ever changing moods.

                              At low tide, the sea will be far out, with the sand dry and desolate looking. Look carefully, however, and secretive little ringed plovers can be spotted, their sandy plumage a perfect camouflage against the sand. More obvious will be the oystercatchers. These handsome black and white waders constantly clamour for attention with their piping calls, and frequent display flights.

                              As the tide starts to fill the bay, the sand is gradually covered, and distant birds, seen as dots only a few minutes ago, gradually become identifiable as the tide brings them closer. In summer, terns fish in the bay. These elegant 'swallows of the sea' entertain visitors with their delicate flight and constant plunging for fish just offshore. Lucky visitors may spot a grey seal or even a porpoise, both species are relatively common around Anglesey.

                              Winter sees even more avian action on an incoming tide as brent geese, red-breasted mergansers, eider ducks, goldeneye, and the rare Slavonian grebe will all be present, drawn in with the rushing waters. At high tide, the beach is completely covered, and the ebbing and flowing waters make a hissing sound as they drag at the sand: any sandcastles being swiftly washed away. Of course, after high tide, the process is reversed, and the beach is uncovered ready for the kids to play on, once more.

                              Active visitors will want to explore, however, and there is much to see here. The park contains several different habitats, including woodland and grassland. The path from the car park leads directly into the wooded areas, some of which were planted in 1816. This is a diverse woodland, with many species of tree, harbouring plenty of wildlife and sheltering many species of flowers.

                              Anglesey has few woods and this is one of the best to visit if you want to see one of the greatest floral spectacles Britain has to offer. In spring, the floor of the wood is carpeted with wild blooms: yellow primrose and lesser celandine contrast with the white wild garlic, but all are put to shade by the spectacular bluebell. Thousands of delicate bell shaped petals put on a beautiful display, enhanced by the dappled sunlight filtering through the trees' new foliage: a show that is both wonderful and free to view.

                              The woods are full of birds, and chaffinches, robins, and long-tailed tits will be moving and singing all around. The drumming of the great spotted woodpecker can be heard here, too.

                              As the woodland is left behind, traditional hay meadows are encountered. These flower rich fields are full of life and vibrant with colour, unlike the sterile, monochrome, cultivated fields that are so common today. As well as common flowers such as mallow and birds-foot trefoil, the pink blooms of thrift, a seaside plant, nestle amongst the green grasses, a delicate, surprising sight away from its traditional sandy setting.

                              The highest point of the park is now reached, at the headland of Gorsedd-y-Penrhyn. This boulder clay outcrop has far reaching views, both inland and out to sea, and still shows evidence of its formation, carved by glaciers 20,000 years ago. There are benches here, and this is one of the best spots to have a rest or a bite to eat.

                              At the other side of the headland is a large, secluded cove. Hidden from view from the rest of the park, this is often deserted, even on a busy day, as it is quite a trek from the park entrance. Here, the rocks of the headland meet the beach, forming rock pools that are irresistible to adults and children alike. Sea anemones, hermit crabs (watch out for the claws!), and even fishes such as gobies, can all be found by carefully moving rocks in the larger pools. Each one holds an abundance of hardy species, all waiting for the incoming tide to release them from their temporary, watery prison.

                              Once the cove has been thoroughly explored, and all the rock pool residents released, all that remains is to retrace one's steps back to the car park. Penrhos is so large that a whole morning or afternoon can easily be taken up in exploring its many attractions, with the time passing quickly with so much to see and do.

                              If you are considering a trip to Anglesey, whether in summer or winter, Penrhos Coastal Park is worth visiting, especially if you are, like me, a lover of beautiful scenery and wildlife. That the park is completely free simply adds to the allure of this lovely place.

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                                09.10.2010 13:37
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                                A wonderful walk in the Dark Peak area of the Peak District

                                The River Goyt rises in the bleak moorland of Axe Edge in Derbyshire. Cutting a narrow course through the millstone grit and shale of the Dark Peak area of the Peak District, this tiny stream eventually joins with the River Tame to form the mighty River Mersey at Stockport.

                                The river's valley has been described as being a microcosm of the Dark Peak as it contains many of the features of this harsh but beautiful landscape in a surprisingly small area: heather moorland, woodland, reservoirs, streams, and high peaks, can all be found here.

                                The area is covered with many miles of good quality footpaths allowing visitors to enjoy one of the most accessible yet wild looking places in the Peak District. I am going to describe my favourite walk, which visits many of the valley's attractions.

                                There are two car parks, one at each end of the valley. I start at Derbyshire Bridge, only a few hundred yards from the busy, winding A537 (known as the most dangerous road in England). The car park here is open at all times. There are toilets, accessible to all, but early birds should note that these are not usually opened until 09:00. There are picnic tables here, too, offering comfortable seating for a nice meal, but I think there are better places in the valley to enjoy one's outside food.

                                After the walk, if a pub meal is required, the Cat and Fiddle, the second highest pub in England, is only a few hundred yards away and offers good food and fabulous views. If you're going at a weekend, however, you should know that this is popular with bikers and gets very busy.

                                The walk starts very easily, on the flat road through the valley towards Errwood Reservoir. Here the walk follows the infant river, and the sound of its rushing, pure waters, will follow you as you travel north. This is a clean watercourse and is home to plenty of wildlife. Trout live in the stream, with their fry being hunted by kingfishers. My favourite, however, is the dipper. This gorgeous little brown and white bird can be seen, acting out its name, 'dipping' under the water looking for food.

                                After about a mile, a footpath, signposted for 'Shining Tor' will be found. The route now takes a more strenuous tone, as the path leads up and out of the valley, towards the highest point of the walk. Out of the valley, heather dominates the landscape, home to the red grouse. This secretive bird, so popular with the shooting fraternity, can surprise visitors by shouting its 'go back go back' call, from deep within the heather. Lucky visitors may get a good look at this handsome, yet hardy, little bird (if you do, note the feathered feet - an adaption to the intense cold of the Peak District winters).

                                After a mile and a half of climbing, the summit is gained: Shining Tor. Named for its appearance when covered in snow, this is the highest point in Cheshire. At 1,834 feet, the view from the top is extensive. Macclesfield forest appears dark and brooding below, the huge saucer dish of Jodrell Bank (still the world's second largest steerable telescope) is easy to pick out only a few miles away, and the flat Cheshire plain stretches as far as the eye can see. This is my favourite spot for a picnic - on the roof of Cheshire.

                                After a well earned rest, the stone path to Pym Chair is followed. This path gently descends from the summit for about a mile before rising again towards the second peak of the walk: Cat's Tor. Unfortunately, humans have eradicated the beautiful wildcats from the area, for which this peak was named, but in this wild landscape it is easy to imagine Britain's only native feline stalking its prey against the backdrop of the dark moors.

                                Nothing remains of Pym's Chair, at which we take the next turn, but this ancient rock was used as a waypoint for travellers on this route for hundreds of years. From here, the route follows the road for a few hundred yards. Here, a dry stone wall, typical of many in the area, forms the north boundary of the road. On my last visit, I was fortunate enough to watch two young stoats darting in and amongst the stones, completely oblivious to their open mouthed observer only a few feet away. It is magical, unexpected, wildlife encounters like this that make walking in the countryside so enjoyable for me.

                                From the road, the path to Errwood Hall is followed. This steep descent soon leads to the Spanish Chapel. Built by the Grimshawe family (who owned Errwood Hall), this charming little chapel is still maintained today, and always contains fresh flowers. This is a tranquil spot and I take time to stop and enjoy this memorial with its beautiful altar, built for the family's governess in 1899.

                                Further down the valley, the ruins of Errwood Hall are encountered: this is an atmospheric place. Partly demolished in 1938, this was the grand residence of the Grimshawe family. The partial demolition has left parts of the hall still looking like new, whilst others have been removed completely. It is easy to imagine the rich owners, living like princes, in this magnificent mansion, so long ago. The owners have left another legacy, too. They planted over 40,000 azaleas and rhododendrons in the valley. The area is still covered in these beautiful plants and a visit in late spring will see the hall's gardens looking dazzlingly colourful with these wonderful blooms.

                                After a few hundred yards, the walk levels out and Errwood Reservoir is reached. There is another car park here and another picnic site overlooking the picturesque reservoir. Trout fishing and sailing are practiced here, and the reservoir can be extremely busy with colourful little boats during the summer months.

                                The final part of the walk follows the road that we started on, travelling back to Derbyshire Bridge alongside the River Goyt. About a mile in length, this is one of the best parts of the walk for wildlife. The rarest owl in Britain, the long-eared owl, lives in the woods bordering the road. In summer, the area is packed with breeding birds: redstart, pied and spotted flycatchers, as well as willow and wood warblers, singing their beautiful songs, seemingly incessantly. In the open areas, whinchat and stonechats may be found, too. Lucky visitors may spot a peregrine falcon or even a hen harrier flashing across the valley.

                                About halfway back to the start point, the river is crossed by an old packhorse bridge. This was used to transport stone southwards out of the Peak District. Apparently, the Pickford family who used it went on to form the famous removal company.

                                Another half a mile sees us safely back at the car after a (hopefully) wonderful walk. The route I've described can be varied in so many ways, and no two visits will be the same. This is one of my favourite places and I never tire of its bleak beauty.

                                Many Peak District visitors come here, and it's easy to see why. The Goyt Valley has something to offer walkers of all abilities and interests. If you visit, I suspect you'll love the area as much as I do.

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                                  02.10.2010 13:43
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                                  If you need a cheap microphone, this is one to try.

                                  I am trying to learn a new language (Spanish) and one of the tools on the software package I'm using allows for the recording of phrases, with playback to see how good one's pronunciation is.

                                  I therefore needed a microphone, but did not want to spend too much. A quick search on the internet showed that my usual computer retailer, Dabs.com, had the Trust High Sensitive Microphone for only £6.47. Reasoning that I'd lost very little money if it was found to be unsuitable, I bought one.

                                  First impressions were not very positive, however. The microphone came securely packaged in one of those moulded plastic cases which are difficult to open without opening a vein or artery on the razor sharp edges. Being very careful, I prised the microphone out of the hole I'd cut in the plastic; and it promptly fell into three pieces!

                                  Fortunately, the pieces fitted back together easily and I'd not caused any damage, but the episode showed just how flimsy in construction the microphone is. Made of thin plastic (both base and stem) the whole thing, including the six foot cable, weighs only 56 grams - in my mind I was already consigning this to the bin.

                                  Despite my misgivings, I proceeded to install the microphone - which simply involved plugging the 3.5mm jack into the mic-in socket on my computer's sound card.

                                  The 'user manual' supplied with the microphone is described as 'multilingual'. This simply meant that the instructions consist of pictures, showing how to plug in the microphone then launch Sound Recorder so that it can be tested.

                                  I followed the instructions, recorded my voice, and played it back: no sound. A quick check of the manual guided me to Vista's Control Panel Sound application: the recording level was set to minimum, hence the lack of recorded volume (reminder to self - always read the manual!).

                                  A few minutes playing with the recording level gave an acceptable setting and I was able to use the microphone with my language tutor.

                                  Even though it is light and flimsy, the microphone has a large, sturdy base that supports the microphone as long as it is not knocked. The stand has angle adjustment from 0-180 degrees allowing the user to site the microphone on a desk, perfectly aligned to his or her face. The adjustment is quite firm and once set, will not slip or sag.

                                  Trust state that this is a 'high sensitivity' microphone, and one that's designed for video conferencing. The high sensitivity means that the microphone can be placed quite a way from the user. I found that it was perfectly capable of picking up my voice from over two feet away. Further than this, however, and background noise can be a problem.

                                  For its price, I found the sound quality to be more than acceptable. Recorded voices are clear and distortion free. There is a detectable increase in bass frequencies, but this was not intrusive at all. I found that for my use, this microphone fitted my needs perfectly. I could listen to my Spanish pronunciation and try to correct it, exactly what I was looking for.

                                  I've had this for several months now and my initial misgivings about the flimsy construction have proven unfounded. The microphone is still in one piece and continues to work, although its location on my desk means that I do not need to touch it, even when using it. If the unit was being handled every day, then its lifetime might be somewhat shortened by rough use.

                                  I'm certain that, for its other intended uses of online gaming, video conferencing and chatting, this cheap microphone will provide more than adequate performance and seriously good value for money and I highly recommend it. If you're looking for a cheap microphone for the uses above, try this one first.

                                  I've since found that Amazon has this for sale even cheaper than Dabs.com: £2.75. This is a real bargain for a reasonable quality microphone.

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