November 2009

The lovely Sharon and I were watching TV tonight.  Were we indulging in these operatic soaps or reality TV (which seems far removed from reality to me – at the moment a woman dressed as a bumble bee is trying not to get her head electrocuted)?  No, we just watched a programme called ‘Off the Beaten Track’ about wandering the hills and mountains of Northern Ireland.

So, we were watching and learning about walking along Fair Head and down a gully called the Grey Man’s Path.  I have never been there myself but the lovely Sharon has and is insisting that we visit it soon.  I was always under the impression that it was called the Grey Man’s Path because it makes a man’s hair turn grey.  I was wrong.  The program went on to explain that it is because according to local legend the grey man walks along this area when the mist rolls in from Rathlin.  As soon as I heard this I had a light bulb moment and thought, “hang on, that sounds familiar”.

I wonder if the conditions in this area match a similar legend called the The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui  their is an excellent website and a short film about the legend here (website) and here (film). Is it possible that the grey man of fair head is in fact a brocken spectre?  A brocken spectre is an amazing optical effect that I have yet to see myself:

image by Gerald Davison

The conditions have to be just right but the effect is that you see a ‘grey man’ a little distance away from yourself.  It will follow you and mock you by copying your movements.  It is not hard to imagine that “mist rolling in from Rathlin” are just such conditions.

I am sure it is initially quite frightening, especially if you were walking in these spooky conditions on your own.  Although I must admit that the site of this broken spectre I found on flickr would really scare the wits out of me:

image from hello, i am bruce

Apparently there are several stories that relate to the Grey Man of Fair Head,  one of these states:

“his voice was different and not of the accents she was used too, she noticed too, in the falling light, that the his face was pale and expressionless below his coat hood. She did not want to stare but could almost swear that it was grey”


“he noticed that that the stranger had one foot in the shape of a broken horse hoof, now this put the fear into her”

I am not sure this can be explained with a brocken spectre.

Back to ‘reality’ TV now, they are eating insects again.  Forget that!  The lovely Sharon and I are away out for a walk through the fields.  The moon is spectacular, the air is frigid and the sky clear.  And Jack Frost is out playing tonight.

There is a bug in my brain’s software, who do I report it to?

It’s been a few weeks since I have put my boots on and breathed the cool hill air, but I made up for it today.  The weather was  very cold and brought a light slow rain cloud that could be seen coming from the sea for an hour before it arrived.  The air was still all day as fog hugged the valleys like pools of frigid water.

For this walk we headed out onto the Sallagh Braes.  Before we left we debated the origin of the name.  I thought it might be the ‘willow road’ as the Irish word for willow is ‘seileach’ which sounds similar.  But it turns out that it was more likely to be the ‘dirty road’ as the word ‘sallagh’ means dirt or foulness.

The walk took us along the edge of a steep cliff which was the result of a huge landslip many aeons ago.  The walk was enjoyable on its own and the company was such that you would laugh in any conditions.  But as a bonus, the walk threw up some wonderful finds including the strange phenomenon of ‘star jelly’ (see below).

The first random thing to be spotted was what I assume to be a type of meadow coral fungus standing out like a strange alien in the grass:

It’s the type of thing that looks out of place and makes you afraid to touch for fear that it might come alive or sting like an anemone.   The next encounter was some sort of small mushroom that looked like a cherry with a perfect hole on top.  I would love to know what this is:

The final weirdness we stumbled upon was that of pwdre ser (or rot of the stars), also known as star jelly.

Pwdre ser is something you would easily walk past and think either nothing of or think of it as disgusting.  It looks like huge lumps of snot.  However, it is a bit of a mystery and an enigma.  For a long time people though it was the leftovers of falling stars (meteorites), hence the name.

William Somervile, in 1740, wrote in The Talisman:

Swift as the shooting star, that gilds the night
With rapid transient Blaze, she runs, she flies;
Sudden she stops nor longer can endure
The painful course, but drooping sinks away,
And like that falling Meteor, there she lyes
A jelly cold on earth.

from wikipedia Star Jelly article

In recent years investigations have begun to try and establish the true origin on the random jelly (see here and here and here).  Some believed it to be a bacterial mould or maybe a fungus.  But the conditions of finding it are unusual.  Sometimes it can be found on grass, on logs, on rocks and even in large amounts.  It does seem to be found either at early spring or at the end of autumn.  Some experiments have been done and I think I remember reading that they found it to be non living.  The strongest possibility is that of frogs.

Have you ever looked at frog spawn and wondered how all that spawn fitted into one tiny frog?  It may be due to the packing material that the eggs come in, the jelly.  This packing material takes up very little room but rapidly and dramatically expands when it comes into contact with water.  This is thought to be the jelly.  It is believed that when a raven or heron (or maybe even a fox or badger) eats a female frog with this packing material unused, the material comes into contact with the predator’s stomach juices during digestion and expands.  The result is the predator vomiting up the jelly.

I have seen this jelly a few times many years ago and wondered at the time what it was.  I wondered so much that I looked into it and found the information I have stated above.  However, there has always been doubt and no hard evidence about the frog theory.  So, I have always kept an eye out for it.  A few times friends have mentioned that they seen it and also wondered.  Only a few weeks ago a colleague on the ML assessment mentioned it to everyone and was curious about its origins.

When I found it today I was delighted (strange, I know).  But then one of my friends exclaimed, “and look , a dead frog!”.  And not even 1 meter away was a frog, bloated and sad.

A dead frog is not a frequent sight at the best of times, but so close to the dirt of a star, it cannot be ignored.

After all that excitement we got to wander off the hill as the light began to play around us.  The winter night is quick to come but its strange and brilliant character cannot be ignored.  On the last leg of the walk we were treated to a view of the gathering fog wrapping around Slemish and the valleys.


I have been pondering this and have some questions.  Why do most reports of pwdre ser see only the jelly and no frog or frog parts?  Why are all the examples mostly clear apart from a few that I have heard of being slightly red in colour (tinged with blood)?  AS I understand it (I could be wrong) birds like herons and ravens swallow their food whole and without chewing.  Is it possible that a live frog empties itself (pee, poo, and egg packing material) inside the predator and causes the predator to vomit the frog and material?  At this stage it is probably likely that the predator would then re-swallow the frog leaving no trace but the jelly unless it was spooked or disturbed after it had vomited.

Update 1/12/09

Based on a few conversations on web forums it seems that the ‘pwdre ser’ of long ago was more than likely referring to nostoc which is a type of cyanobacteria. However, the clear jelly that I found, and other examples on the net, are part of a collection of substances that many people call pwdre ser (or star jellies) today.  So in time, the definition of what people call pwdre ser may have widened over time.

Also, I had stated that I had never heard of anyone finding frog parts in the jelly (the ‘frog jelly’ star jelly).  However, I have since discovered from chatting on forums that people have found partially digested frog parts in some finds.

UPDATE 05/12/09

Or maybe it IS pwdre ser?

I was doing some more searching about on the internet and found the abstract of a 1926 Nature article. It seems this debate is a bit Déjà vu:


Pwdre Ser (The Rot of the Stars)
PERHAPS I may be allowed to reopen a subject which gave rise to a very interesting correspondence in NATURE in 1910. I refer to the mysterious jelly-like substance found lying about in open spaces, and popularly connected with ‘shooting-stars,’ about which Prof. T. McKenny Hughes contributed an interesting article to these columns on June 23, 1910. Many suggestions as to the origin of this substance were made both by Prof. Hughes and by later correspondents, but no definite conclusion seems to have been reached. Of course it cannot be taken for granted that the ‘jelly’ is always of the same nature. It may well be that the ‘jellies’ recorded by some observers were the plasmodia of Myxomycetes, or masses of Nostoc or some other organism. But it seems to have been suggested so early as 1667 by Merrett that the jelly consisted of the viscera of frogs. He says (I quote from Prof. Hughes) ”Regiae Societati palam ostendi solummodo oriri ex intestinis ranarum a corvis in unum locum congestis, quod aliis etiam ejusdem societatis viri praestantissimi postea confirmarunt”

The Muntjac are coming.

Yesterday’s busy rushed day was worth it.  The full cups of coffee down the drain were worth it.  The one hour spent on the M2/M5 car park* was worth it.  It was all worth it see the pupils get this:

Their LEGO trophy (and medals) for the most innovative robot design.


On a completely different note, something strange is happening.  A few days ago the lovely Sharon drew my attention to the roof of our garden shed.  Sitting/lying on the shed is a toy action figure.  We are a little perplexed as to how it got there.  It is still there, maybe he is just visiting.  Then at the weekend the lovely Sharon and I returned from church to find another action figure.  This time it was in her handbag and rather scary looking. How strange.


*the only good thing about the M2/M5 car park is that it is free.

It’s catagorised as a busy day when I am making my 3rd cup of coffee without actually having drunk any coffee at all. ****sigh***

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”

And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.

We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.

Rainer Maria Rilke

I can’t believe I am doing this; I am posting a cute animal picture.  Is this this the start of a downward spiral?

unknown source

When I look at this I can’t help but be anthropomorphic.  I see a favourite and a grump.

ALWAYS trust the compass.  Often I find myself having to remind myself of this simple little mantra when in bad visibility.  It is very easy for us to walk in what we think is a straight line but is in fact a curve.  And it is also very tempting for us to walk on a compass bearing, which should be a straight line, and think to ourselves that we are walking in a curve.  This tendency also highlights the common misconception encountered when teaching navigation; that the compass is kept out, and in hand, to follow.  If you try and walk and keep the compass in hand and ‘follow the compass’ the tendency to not walk in a straight line will make you walk off the bearing.  It is better to imagine the bearing as a straight line on the ground that you are trying to keep to.  Use the compass to see the straight line on the ground and try and pick an object that is far away and on the line (like a rock or distinctive blade of grass).  Then put the compass away and walk to that point, then repeat the process again.

But should we always trust the compass?  Over the years I have have seen a strange thing happen from time to time; compass reversal.  i.e. the north on the compass suddenly starts pointing south! It is a strange thing to see but can be explained by the use of strong magnetic fields.  If a compass is brought into a magnetic field facing the wrong way it can be re-magnetised.  This needs to happen quickly so that the needle does not get a change to spin and line itself up properly.

the one on the left is ok, the one on the right has been scared reversed

It can even be a problem while out on the hill.  Strong magnets are more common than they used to be and they can often be found in glasses cases and even some hydration tubes.  A friend of mine was out at the weekend and had his compass reverse on the hill, probably due to coming too near his hydration tube magnet too quickly.  So, was it possible to continue using the compass with the needle the wrong way round?  It turns out that it is more difficult than you would expect as the compass needle sticks too much.  Compass needles are ‘balanced’ when they leave the factory.  This means that the needle has a little extra weight added to one end to keep it level.  When the compass has been reversed the needle is left dipping down too much on one end making it stick.

There is a solution to fixing a reversed compass or a lazy compass (one that is too weak to turn fast), it involves bringing the compass carefully near a very, very strong magnet.  A friend of mine calls this scaring the compass.  If the compass has been reversed then you figure out which way the compass wants to align with the strong magnet.  Then you turn the magnet 180 degrees around , holding it away from the compass.  Then you very quickly introduce the compass to the magnet before the needle has a chance to align itself the way it wants to, then leave them together for a while.  If the compass is lazy then it is a simple matter of bringing them close together slowly then leaving them for a while.  Just a matter of sneeking up on it and scaring it with a strong magnet.

What’s the point in learning new things?

click to enlargeclick image to enlarge

Goodbye new moon (nothing to do with twilight).  The moon has turned and is waxing towards the 3rd of December.  It’s name in December is the Oak Moon or the Cold Moon.

unknown source

If you have ever been sitting in traffic or a long road, in the winter darkness and spied a bright star.  If you ever wondered if it is the member of a winter constellation or a wanderer, a planet.  If you ever see these things and want to know their names then take a note of the time and rough direction if you can.  In years gone by people used to have this wisdom.  But they never had the internet or stellarium.  Download stellarium here.

Being out and about (although I feel like I haven’t been for too long)  it is useful and interesting to be able to spot a few clouds.  I see lenticular clouds sitting on top of mountains every so often, although I have seen nothing as UFOish as this lenticular:

Picture: Gianandrea Sandri/Roberto Cavallini

And I have never seen this six legged pig:

via the cloud appreciation society

via interesting ideas

The weekend is sometimes a chance to wander through the shops, to window shop and tut at the Christmas lights and merchandise which has appeared desperately early.  When I wander around the shops I am drawn to certain magnetic beacons; the book shops.  So inevitably I pick up random things and I peruse all the interesting sections on the lookout for something new.  On one of these hunting exercises I spotted a new book by Banjo Bannon.

banjo bannon

Over coffee and a panini I began to get drawn in to the life of this local hero.  It’s a captivating read.  But today the lovely Sharon spotted it and got very cross.  Something to do with santa and returning something to amazon, she was vague but obviously cross.  I thought santa lived at the north pole?  Anyway, apparently I am not allowed to buy anything anymore and I am, quote; ‘impossible’ whatever that means.

A popular place to visit in the Mourne Mountains is the Hare’s gap.  It’s a nice point of entry into the high Mournes and a good place to visit Slieve Bernagh or the Brandy Pad from. WalkNI gives some good info about how to get to it here.

Hare's GapView from the Hare’s Gap. A lovely photo by the_gman

I don’t know if there are any hares here?   I did once see lots of little hopping eyes one night.  They looked like little rabbits in the darkness although the large cavities under boulders are more conducive to the habitat of hares than rabbits

Bernard Davey’s Mourne hints at the origin of the name, stating;

” known as the Hare’s Gap…………This particular col is the best example of a mountain pass to be found in the Mournes.  From here onwards, the smugglers would fan out towards their different destinations.  Some say the gap is named after one of the more notorious smugglers called O’Hare but the less romantic explanation, and this is the one that prevails, is that it is called after a farmer by the same name, who grazed his sheep here. Perhaps he was one and the same person.”

However, one thing that always struck me as a little strange about this origin was that it is called ‘Hare’s Gap’ and not ‘O’Hare’s Gap’.  It’s just a minor difference and names do change over time and are sometimes shortened so I didn’t really think about it until I read an even older book; ‘The Ring Of Mourne’ by W. Haughton Crowe.  It it, the Gap has another, older, story behind the name:


“You may wish to walk up to the Hare’s Gap along the wild mountain path through a gate just beyond the farm-house.  Why the place is called the Hare’s gap I don’t know.  In M.G. Crawford’s Legendary Stories it is described as the “Mare’s Gap,” the story being that a rider and his spirited young mare were killed by being whirled through the gap on the night of the Big Wind.  Anyhow the place is mad enough for hare, man or mare; and make sure there is no big wind for, as they would say locally,: “Ye’d foundher up there as aisy as wink.”

New Picture (1)This possible name leaves room for it being changed to Hare’s Gap at a later date, explaining why the O’ was maybe not necessary.  Notice how it says ‘the Big Wind’ and not ‘a Big Wind’.  The Big Wind that the extract refers to is an epic event in history and it may be hard to imagine a rider and horse being thrown through a mountain pass, but when you investigate the Big Wind further it ceases to be beyond the imagination.  On the night of January 6th, 1839 a storm like no other hit Ireland; ‘The Night of The Big wind‘.  People believed that the world was ending.  There is a eye-opening book on the event which is definitely worth getting:


It is not easy to get a copy online, but I think the publishers themselves still have a few that can be purchased directly from them.

A friend emailed me this excellent picture.

will belay for food

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