Fifteen months ago that would have seemed like such an unexceptionable sentence that I would never have thought of writing it in a blog. In fact, for much of the year it could have been considered a slow week – and back when I was touring in Italy I was regularly performing twenty shows a week!
The past year, however, has obviously been different for all of us. For a few days in December I did manage to perform some magic for people waiting in line to see ‘Father Christmas’ at an event at the Isle of Wight Steam Railway in Havenstreet, where I was safely separated from everyone by standing elevated in a railway wagon… until I got ‘pinged’ by track and trace and had to self-isolate.
It has been 14 months, since I performed the ‘Non-Psychic ‘Psychic’ Show’ in Crewe, since I had a ‘proper’ live audience, not people I have seen over a computer screen or with extreme pandemic safety measures performing for a queue. Then the government restrictions being relaxed on 17th May suddenly made it possible for me to properly perform outdoor shows once more, and one day later, on the 18th, I was set to perform for an audience of sixty school children in the garden of the hotel where they were staying on a residential school trip to the Isle of Wight, and had my magic show booked for performances over the next two nights (with half of the group watching each night).
I had wondered for a while what that first performance back would feel like.
Obviously I knew there would be technical changes to the show for safety reasons – I have had to temporarily cut anything which would need close audience interaction or a lot of passing objects backwards and forwards for example – so no ‘pick a card’ tricks (not that I do many of those anyway). On a ‘feeling’ note though, would it feel good to be back, would if feel strange, or would it feel like I had never been away?
Now I know the answer. If I had to sum up my first performance as a magician back with a live audience a few miles from home in a hotel garden on the Isle of Wight, the word I would have to use is ‘fast’. It felt quick, everything flew by.
I had deliberately chosen tricks with a quick set up to allow me to get into the show as quickly as possible after arriving, so obviously the set up was fast, but from the moment the children started to take their seats on the grass and I opened my mouth to perform, it felt like the show took off! Everything was going well, I was excited, and everything felt so fast.
It was only as I picked up the last trick that I had intended to perform that evening and looked at my clock that I realised why everything had seemed so fast, as it dawned on me that the reason the show had felt so fast was that it had been – I had performed what should have been a full hour of material in 40 minutes, and now had twenty minutes left to fill!
Luckily I always have extra material with me, so in the moment I just moved on and did more pieces, and it was only afterwards on my drive home that I dissected why I had dashed through the material, and I came to the conclusion that there were two reasons.
The first reason was that I had been excited! Of course I had, I was performing a full show for a live audience for the first time in fourteen months, and that excitement made everything a little quicker than usual – this was something I would have to watch over my next few shows.
The second factor was to do with applause! You know when you go to a live show and people clap at the end of tricks (at least they do if the performance is good)? For the last fourteen months I hadn’t had the applause running through shows – the ‘(Almost) Live’ shows were not interactive with audio, and in Zoom shows I keep the audience on mute except when they are participating in a particular trick, and so had replaced applause with hand waving.
The bottom line is that I hadn’t heard laughter and applause in that way for over a year, and had become used to a ‘video’ sense of timing, meaning that I had actually been treading on my own laughs and applause in that show, instead of allowing the tricks to ‘breathe’ and the audience to actually get their applause out! There is an art to timing the right moment to continue the show during laughter or applause, to not let it die out to an awkward silence, but not to cut it off too early, and I had not thought about this part of adjusting to a live audience again.
Having fully debriefed myself, I was, overall, really pleased with my first show back performing live, and even more so the second night when, with the proper course corrections, the show ran much better to the time I had expected!
With live shows returning, but also with work now well underway for the ‘Greg Chapman Magic Show’ series to film over the next few months, I am looking forward to a future that allows me to combine what I enjoy from both live shows and filmed shows!
Making A Magic Show – Part One – Choosing The Tricks
A Blog Post By Greg
This is the first of a new series of blog posts which I am intending to write over the next few months, in between our other posts, about one of our upcoming projects. When I look back at the first blog post I wrote introducing this blog in December 2019 I wrote that ‘the main focus of this blog will be travel, history and magic, but do expect other topics to crop up as we go along’, and I am pleased, looking back over our blog posts, even from the lockdown, that we have actually stayed within that remit rather well. If I were to add another category, I would probably say that the main focus of the blog is travel, history, magic and wildlife, mainly as it relates to creating our videos. Of course we veer off into tangents now and again, but these threads seem to run through it all.
This series of posts is going to fit firmly into the ‘magic’ category, as over the next four months one of our big projects is going to be to create the first series of ‘Greg Chapman’s Magic Show’, a magic show series which we are intending to film over the summer, and then make available on a number of streaming sites come the Autumn. I have decided to document some of my process while working on the magical side of this show in these blog posts, as I though some people might be interested in how I am going to go about creating the magic for this eight-part series!
Given that we are looking at each episode running at thirty minutes, and that my pieces run at an average of about five minutes in length (with quite a range in lengths making up that average!), this means, if my maths skills are working, that I need to put together approximately 48 effects ready for the series. On the basis that there will be at least one which I will get all the way through the preparation stage on and then decide when it gets to the edit that I don’t like how it looks on camera, lets round that up and say I’m going to have to put together fifty different effects over the next four months. Usually I might add a dozen or so new effects to my shows over the course of a year, so this is a big task, and one I am very excited about!
I’m going to pause, just for a moment, to talk about the difference between a ‘trick’ and an ‘effect’. I have heard these used interchangeably by people who do not work in magic, and sometimes by people who work inside of magic, and even when I hear magicians who do separate them when talking about them, they define the words slightly differently from each other. I think that it is probably worthwhile letting you all know how I define the differences between the two, so that we keep the distinctions clear during these blogs.
The ‘trick’ is the actual magic thing which happens – the ball disappears, the rabbit appears in the hat, the rings are magically linked together. These are the things which require technical skill, or knowledge, or equipment, or some other ‘sneaky method’ to accomplish. The magic trick laid bare is nothing but procedure, and if you ever see someone just perform a ‘trick’ then you are likely to go away wondering how they did it, but not to feel entertained or enriched by it. For me, if someone just shows you a trick in its most basic form then you are more likely to look at it like a riddle, something where you just want to know the answer and feel slightly ‘left out’ because you are being shown a mystery without a solution.
The ‘effect’ on the other hand, is how you take that trick and turn it into a performance, to make it entertaining, to imbue it with a sense of ‘theatre’. This can be done with words, music, or just by actions and looks, but it draws you in and leaves you, when done well, with a sense of having been entertained, and at its best it allows you to become a child again and not even wonder in the moment how the magic is achieved. Certainly, afterwards, you may go back and wonder, but in the moment you are entertained by a performance, not being confronted by a riddle.
As an example, consider for a moment the ‘Rabbit Out Of The Hat’ trick which I presented at the end of part three of the ‘Greg Chapman’s Magic At The Waterworks Museum’ virtual show (if you haven’t seen it, you can go and watch that HERE).
The trick here is a simple one – it is having a series of objects appear out of an apparently empty hat.
However, rather than just standing there, showing the hat empty, and then removing rabbits one at a time, I present it as the story of how the rabbits are running around inside my clothes, and it becomes the story of the rabbits leaping out of pockets, along sleeves, through trapdoors and into hats. It works in elements of how the rabbits are trained, the mistakes they make, and turns the rabbits into characters, and the trick into an effect.
For me, personally, magic is all about the effect. I don’t look at magic in an adversarial ‘I’m going to fool you’ kind of way. I know full well that if you really want to know how my tricks are done, especially on video, you can watch them multiple times and probably get pretty close to figuring out what is happening. Of course, I know that the majority of people won’t – my job is to make the whole show so entertaining that you won’t want to spend the time it would take to try to figure out how things are done, I would rather you just enjoy the effects.
Having said that, I also want the magic to appear ‘magical’ – and so as I’m presenting the effect I don’t want you to know how the trick is done, I want you to experience it as a piece of magic.
So at the moment I am starting at what, for me, is the first step in adding a new effect to my performance, I’m just trying to do it with fifty different effects at the same time. When I decide I want to add a new effect to any of my performances it usually starts with the trick first. Then I turn to the books!
This is the phase I am currently in, as I read through my collection of old magic books (along with a few new additions purchased from eBay!), and for me the older the book the better in a lot of ways, to find tricks that I can adapt, modify, pull apart and put back together. My reading here is as diverse as the ‘Tarbell Course of Magic’ (a special thank you to James Bonine for sending me the first four volumes of this at the start of lockdown), volumes made up from what was originally a mail order course in magic from 1926, through books of plans for building large stage illusions, and even several books written to teach magic for children which often have hidden gems which can be rethought and reworked.
Next to me as I type this is a volume of the Tarbell course, and sticking out of the side of it are lots of small ‘Post-It’ notes marking pages where a trick has appealed to me as I am reading through. On the first read through each book to find tricks I deliberately keep my options open – at this point all a trick needs to get a sticky note is to appeal to me in some way.
My next read through these tricks is more critical, and I am applying a number of criteria to them to whittle down the numbers. A lot of this is fairly subconscious, and it is a ‘gut-feeling’ whether or not I’m going to start working on a trick, but some of the thinking I can explain.
My first question is stylistic – does it fit my style. Obviously, given the style of this series, and my shows in general, I’m a little old-fashioned in my aesthetic, and so any tricks which use a lot of technology, or are focussed around technology, such as magic tricks with mobile phones, for example, are discounted. There are some tricks which I enjoy the sound of, and can imagine being performed perfectly by another performer, but which don’t suit my style at all. Those lose their sticky notes!
The next question is one of practicality – can I get hold of or build any props or apparatus I would need in order to create this trick, can I do in time for the shows, and can I do it with the very limited budget which this first series will have. If the answer is no to this question then these pages lose their sticky note – but do get noted down in a separate notebook for potential inclusion in a future show.
My third question is quite a personal one for me. Do I know somebody who has created an effect around this particular trick which I consider to be perfect, or pretty close? For example, I wouldn’t perform the multiplying bottles trick – Tommy Cooper’s routine for that was such a perfect presentation of the effect that I don’t think I could take it in a different direction which would avoid comparison, and I certainly don’t think I would do it better than his performance. Any trick which I feel that way about goes. There may be tricks which I know perfect versions of, but where I can envision an effect and presentation which I would put to it which would be from such a different angle it wouldn’t result in people comparing the underlying trick – those get to keep their sticky notes.
Finally, I begin to think about effects. When reading about the trick do I get a glimmer of an idea about a possible presentation? Is there a way that I can make this trick my own and build something around it to make it right for my shows? Does it suggest a story, or a bit of business which I can create? Does it remind me of something from my life, or of a message which I want to share? Is there a joke which immediately leaps into my head. Is there another trick which would link with this to create an effect between them?
If a trick passes all of these tests it gets written onto a fresh page in my notebook, ready for the next step in the process… which I will take you through in the next part of my blog series!
In the meantime, if you are interested in my magic or our upcoming magic series, please consider heading over to our Ko-Fi page and supporting the series. For just £3 you can get our ‘Join The Team’ perk (HERE), and get behind the scenes details and emails from us as we work on all our projects, but for just £50 you can become an Executive Producer of one of the episodes of the magic series (HERE), with your name as executive producer in the end credits and, as we work on the series, some extra behind the scenes videos with Greg rehearsing, working on, and discussing some of the tricks for the upcoming series!
It must have been about thirty years ago – I was old enough for a strong memory to have formed, but not over eight years old, as the Paul Daniel’s Magic Show went off the air in 1994.
I was sat there, less than nine years old, and Paul Daniels was telling a story about King Arthur and his sword Excalibur. He told (and forgive me if I have some details of this story wrong – I have never been able to find this episode since) of the power of the sword, and that anyone holding it couldn’t be harmed. He told an audience member that the sword itself had been melted down, and segments of it were sold as small model swords in souvenir shops. He had one of these souvenir swords, looking a lot like a paper knife, which he handed to a spectator.
Paul Daniels then pulled out a small guillotine, just big enough for a finger. He showed the blade of the guillotine, he had the audience member put their finger through the hole in the guillotine while holding the small model of Excalibur, and then brought the blade down on their finger. The blade magically passed clean through the finger, and somehow the person’s finger survived unscathed!
I think about that trick often. My parents tell me I had a ‘Paul Daniel’s Magic Set’ when I was young, but I don’t remember it (by the way, anyone with an overwhelming desire to send me a gift, there are lots of second hand Paul Daniels magic sets on eBay…). I don’t remember the magic set I had, or the tricks I apparently learned, but I remember Paul Daniels performing that trick, and years later I understand why.
Performance. Magic is not about a trick, it is about how you perform the trick. The story Paul Daniels built around that relatively simple trick (yes, I have a version of the trick these days, but I rarely perform it) captured my imagination so strongly that I remember both the performance and the feelings it created to this day.
Fast forward to February 2019. I was now a professional entertainer, and a large part of that entertainment was the performance of magic. I now had five ‘idols’ in my profession – Penn Jillette, Teller, Derren Brown, Mr Alexander… and Paul Daniels. I got to go out and perform magic for people, and I was a committed ‘live’ performer.
I worried about videos of my act getting online, I wanted everyone to experience it ‘live’ and only live. I watched magic on television, and, with a few exceptions (Penn and Teller’s Fool Us and Derren Brown’s tapings of his live shows spring to mind), there were fast cuts, camera tricks, editing tricks, and they left me feeling cold. This modern form of television magic was popular, but not for me, not to my taste.
Then the pandemic struck, and I started to perform shows on ‘Facebook Live’, and it remained important to me that any magic I performed was performed ‘live’ on the show, but I started trying to find a lot of new tricks so that I could perform new tricks every fortnight and not burn through all my live material.
Over time I realised I didn’t actually need to perform the magic live for the camera. By using fixed camera angles and no cuts I could record the magic and people could still see that it wasn’t being done with camera tricks and clever editing. I could pre-record the shows without destroying the magic. I also came to realise that I really enjoyed working on the new magic, and that if the performance is right, that people wouldn’t mind if they saw the trick in real life after seeing it on video.
Then I listened to an interview with Paul Daniels on a podcast called ‘The Magician’s Podcast’. Of course he’d figured all of this out well over thirty years ago, long before I first saw him perform on television, before I was even born!
He talked about the importance of prioritising the performance over the trick, about the joy he had creating new effects to fill 150 episodes of his series, and he talked about the importance of knowing the point in a magic trick after which you can’t change camera angles, where you have to stay with a fixed shot to prove there are no camera tricks.
Then, in March 2021, I got an email from the Waterworks Museum, Hereford. For the second year running they wouldn’t be able to host the ‘Hereford Steampunk Weekend’ due to Covid restrictions. Last year they had run a ‘virtual festival’ and I had filmed a short clip for them, but this year they had a new idea. Could I create and film some magic show videos specially for them?
Of course I could.
We were constrained by space – we were still in lockdown and so filming would have to be done in the confines of the Mercave Studio, our studio and rehearsal space within our workshop in the back garden.
We were constrained by time – I would only have about three weeks to write the show, learn the tricks, film and edit the three twenty-minute shows.
We were constrained by budget – live shows and a return (hopefully) to performing regularly won’t be until at least June, so we couldn’t spend a fortune on new set pieces or tricks.
Despite all of these constraints, however, I realised something important. I really enjoy creating magic shows in a format which works on camera. I like looking through old magic books, searching online magic stores and auction sites, finding new magic (and very old magic) and creating my own performance around it. I like looking into how I can theme tricks, to make them varied, in this case to fit in with the Waterworks Museum.
After years of shunning the idea of my performances being on video, because I hadn’t enjoyed most recent TV magic shows, I have found that by looking to my childhood for inspiration, by looking at the Paul Daniels Magic Show and a style of television magic which some may consider ‘dated’, I had found a great deal of joy.
By the time this blog comes out, you will be able to watch my virtual shows, ‘Greg Chapman’s Magic at the Waterworks Museum’ parts one, two and three on YouTube by clicking on the images below:
This feels like a new beginning, a new step in my magical career. Of course I will still be performing live – in fact I will be performing a live follow up to the virtual shows at the Waterworks Museum Hereford on Saturday 7th August this year (for details and tickets visit www.ticketsource.co.uk/gregchapman).
Before the pandemic, as regular readers of this blog know, Felicity and I had already begun a move to producing more video content with our travel documentaries, which started out on YouTube, but have now started to appear on streaming services like Prime Video, Tubi and Plex. Of course, therefore, I want to combine these two elements of our work, and so I have decided that one of our filming projects for 2021 will be an eight part magic show series to be released through streaming sites and on DVD, which, although it will be done in my own unique style, will take stylistic inspiration not from modern magic specials, but from the magic performed in theatres around the end of the Nineteenth Century, and the Paul Daniels Magic Show. I am already pouring over some very old magic books to discover hidden gems of tricks which I can use as the basis for new pieces of theatrical and entertaining magic.
Many of the details of this series I am keeping under wraps for the moment as we are in the early stages, but I am very excited about it! As many of you will know, we are currently crowdfunding at www.ko-fi.com/greg to raise funds to upgrade our camera equipment for all of our future filming projects, including this series! By going to www.ko-fi.com/greg/shop you can also get some rewards for helping to support us, and there are two rewards I want to mention specifically here.
For £3 you can get our ‘Join The Team’ reward, which gets you access to our behind the scenes email newsletters, and will also get you access to behind the scene clips and videos as we create our projects.
For £50 you can get an ‘Executive Producer’ credit on one of the episodes of the magic show series, plus a special video thank you and access to our ‘behind the scenes’ emails and videos!
Hopefully before reading this blog post you will have watched our little video, ‘The Tale of Ivy Preen’ (above).
As you can see in the video, we briefly mention the fact that long before we rescued Ivy, the sparrow, my family had some prior experience with rescue animals – but for the interest of pacing in this particular video, we kept it brief. This blog post will shed a bit more light onto that previous experience and it goes back a long time. . .
My family have always been ‘animal people’. Long before I was born my Mum reared twelve orphaned feral kittens (from three different litters) and I always enjoyed hearing her talk of them – they were so young their eyes hadn’t yet opened and she had to syringe feed them and tickle them afterwards to make them go to the loo. She had to do this every two hours. As they grew older they would lay under her chin and one would suckle on her bottom lip.
When I was born there were only five of these twelve cats remaining as well as an additional rescue cat from a sanctuary. The cats were well into their late teens when I came along. We also had an elderly dog called Dusty Bin.
Dusty Bin was also one of Mums rescues – She happened upon him ten years before I was born, when she was walking her two Red Setters to visit her friend. When Mum arrived at her friend’s house, she witnessed the neighbour kicking his dog who was tied up in the garden. Upon confronting this man, an unpleasant conversation followed where he told her ‘’If you’re that bothered about it Mrs, you have him!’’… long story short she rescued another ill- treated, unwanted dog and returned home with three dogs that day. The Setters passed away from old age before I came along and so only our elderly Labrador cross Dusty remained.
One of the Setters was also a rescue brought to her by the police. The poor Red Setter was wandering along on the motorway and they knew she had a Red Setter and thought it might be hers. It turned out he had been abused by his owners and remained unclaimed so Mum adopted him too.
Whenever my family went on holiday, we always seemed to attract the animals there too – my Dad would often joke (?!) that he went on holiday to escape the animals and somehow always ended up surrounded by stray ones there too!
It is something that was always ingrained in me and my sister – a respect for animals, wild or domestic and a willingness to help any in need.
My husband, Greg, is well used to me stealing his hoodie to scoop up any poorly animals we come across. He doesn’t bat an eyelid when I ask him to turn the car around whenever I see something near the side of the road and want to check if it is an injured animal. He still jokes how he was mightily relieved on the one occasion where the pony we saw lying beside the road in the New Forest was in fact just relaxing and not in trouble, as he said he didn’t know how we would get it into the van if it needed help! Greg is also used to my longing to help any and all strays we see as we travel around the world.
Back in my childhood, once the elderly cats and Dusty had passed away, Mum and Dad said they didn’t want any more animals as it hurts too much when they pass away. This resolve lasted only a couple of years. My sister and me had heard so many stories of Mum’s dogs and cats, her rabbit, her tortoise, her gerbils and hamsters, her budgies and of Dad’s little white mouse, his dog and his budgies and chickens… It wasn’t long before our requests for animal companions resulted in us each getting a hamster. Later I got dwarf rabbits (supposedly two girls but then we ended up with more bunnies!) and we ended up hearing of many unwanted pets which we usually took in. (My sister was an Assistant Manager in Pets at Home during her twenties and we heard of a lot of them through her job)
My sister also discovered that there was nobody in the whole of Birmingham doing hedgehog rescue so she signed our family up with the Hedgehog Preservation Society and we ended up traveling all over the area collecting and caring for injured/ poorly/ orphaned Hedgehogs. I remember at one point we had over thirty Hogs in our care. Our garage no longer contained just gardening equipment but was transformed into an animal rescue building. Our garden was alive with rustling bushes and snuffling, slurping critters.
We had had trouble finding a vet who we had confidence in. Believe it or not, rabbits are classed as an ‘exotic’ pet (due to their complicated digestive system) and as we were taking in sick, unwanted and badly treated animals, we needed a good vet and they were sadly, not easy to find. Even fewer knew what they were doing with wildlife. When we eventually did find a good one, we had a good relationship with them. In return for medical help with our Hedgehogs, we were willing to take in any injured wildlife needing nurturing that had been brought in to the vets.
During our years in Birmingham, we took in numerous rabbits, Hamsters, Guinea Pigs, Gerbils, Rats, Mice, Chinchillas, Hedgehogs, various bird species and when I was thirteen, we took in two more rescue cats.
All of the animals were precious, even the ones with a bad attitude. My sister even seems to prefer these, her mentally challenged ‘psycho’ gerbil John springs to mind!
Some shine particularly brightly for me too. One such case was one of our Rats who had cystic fibrosis. The vet said he wouldn’t live more than six months and we had him for years. We found that stroking him would help to clear his lungs and he could often be found on mine or my sister’s shoulder, hiding beneath our hair. Many of our friends were squeamish about rats yet all of them loved ‘Howie the Hamster’ as they didn’t believe something so gorgeous was a rat!
One of our rabbits was a house rabbit who just wanted cuddles all day long and would nip at your ankles if he felt you weren’t giving him enough attention.
Our first Hedgehog, a baby when we had him, climbed inside my sleeve and went to sleep at the base of my back. I was stuck there for ages as whenever I tried to move, he would start to prickle! He was a lovely Hog and didn’t stay small for long! (At the time I didn’t realise how many prickles hedgehogs regularly shed but we all learned quickly as we would regularly find prickles in our clothing and particularly painful when it was somehow in our underwear!) I still have photos of our ginger rescue cat nose to nose with this hog. He was a particularly sweet tempered hog.
The aforementioned Ginger cat was one of the most precious of all. My sister spotted an advert in the newspaper showing a particularly unattractive cat with one ear missing and the article stated that nobody had been found to give him a good home. My Mum said that if nobody gave him a home over the weekend, then we would have him. She in fact left it a whole week, not wanting the upset of one day losing another cat, sure that he would have had multiple offers of a home by then. In actuality, not a single person enquired after him. Upon going to collect him from the rescue centre, we were told he had feline aids and could not be allowed to mix with other cats. As we have always tried to keep animals in pairs for company, we also adopted another FIV positive cat who was a confident, handsome tuxedo cat. Our ginger cat was a nervous boy, unused to living in a house or around people. For some reason he instantly formed an attachment to me, the loudest person in the house by a mile! For whatever reason he decided I meant safety and he would come out from his hiding place for a cuddle whenever I was around till the day he finally realised that our home was his home and our family was his family and he never had to hide again. (The other rescue cat was a spoilt house cat but we loved him, his cuddles and his cat nip antics dearly too!)
Another precious one we had from the vets – a baby Magpie. While some of the rescues came with a back story (the baby pigeon being dropped by a bird of prey onto a topless sunbather is a favourite of mine!) this bird didn’t. All we knew was that he was too young and needed rearing.
Birds can be difficult. The larger species like pigeons and pheasants aren’t so bad but the smaller birds such as Robins often suffer with shock and if a cat got to them, infection is a big killer too. This was our first Corvine bird. He was such a character. Even though we all played a part in raising him, he too decided I was his and would mimic my voice, follow me around and was regularly antisocial with everyone else. It quickly transpired that my Mum would never get any peace as if it wasn’t me making noise, it was our Magpie sounding just like me! Clever bird!
When the time came to move to the Isle of Wight we intended to stop doing the animal rescue. We no longer had a vet we knew and had confidence in and as there were other places doing Hedgehog and wildlife rescue on the Island and our new garden had Badger sets (Badgers eat Hedgehogs) we decided we were not needed for this in our new home. The domestic animals already in our care moved with us and the wild ones we were able to release or rehome we did so before leaving Birmingham.
Once on the Island, however, old habits can be hard to break. We have rescued one or two animals since being here but a lot of them we entrust to other organisations better equipped to care for them properly.
On one memorable occasion I was leading one of my fossil trips on the beach when my group happened across a young Gannet. The Island had just come to the end of a patch of stormy weather and this bird had washed in young and exhausted. It was also being set upon by a dog. Knowing that a lot of dog walkers frequent this beach and that had the bird been well, the dog would have been unable to get near it, I knew I couldn’t just leave it there. Someone on my trip lent me their kid’s spare waterproof trousers to wrap around the bird and back along the beach we went. I finished my trip with this bird in my arms and when I reached the car park and my Dad who was waiting to give me a lift, he didn’t even look surprised!
My Dad later told me that he wasn’t surprised that I had rescued something because that’s just me. He was however surprised by what I had rescued – as I approached his car the Gannet’s feet were touching my knees, its body on my hip and its head by my shoulder, beak clasped firmly in my hand. (It took me a moment and cost me some blood but once I had discovered that Gannets, even young ones, have serrated beaks I quickly discovered how to hold the beak without allowing it to hurt me or cause harm to the bird!)
Some of the lovely people on that fossil trip brought me baby wipes and plasters and, where we often get emails thanking us for the fossil trips, the ones that day were also largely about the bird and wanting to know how it fared. Sometimes people are at a loss as to how to best help wildlife (the people watching on the day we tried to save a dolphin are a good example of that – to learn more on that story click HERE) but I always find it so reassuring and heart warming when you are reminded that it isn’t because they don’t care but just don’t know how best to help. For every person that mistreats an animal, there are hundreds who would rather help.
On this occasion we took the bird to a place with better facilities where it was cared for till rested and recovered and a week or so later it was ready for release.
This is always the aim with wild animals. Give them help when they need it but always remember they belong back in the wild. Our Fox Cub, Brook was a hard one. My sister found him limping along in the road with another car beside him. The other car drove off and we were never sure if they had hit him or if they were trying to release him. Brook seemed very tame to us. He never bit any of us and seemed too comfortable around humans. (Although the vet we took him to wasn’t as comfortable around him as he was around us! She actually asked us if he was a fox, as though she had never seen one before!) After about a month in our care, once his limp was gone, we took him to a sanctuary on the mainland where he was kept with two young female rescue foxes till they were all old enough and wild enough to go free.
I love wildlife and I love watching the creatures in our garden. Greg got a trail camera for me for Christmas and every morning I love seeing who was about in the night. To see some of what we see, watch our video below.
Since moving to the Isle of Wight, after our old cats passed away, we added to our family again with a rescue dog (A Saluki cross) and two rescue kittens.
Our Saluki cross was found along with her siblings and mother in a box, dumped in the middle of the road. The mother was too thin and weak to stand. The puppies were all bow-legged from lack of nutrients and all suffered mental issues as a result. The mother was adopted and had some happy years with her new family but all of the puppies bar ours were readopted multiple times due to their mental difficulties despite all going to experienced owners.
When our girl was young we also called in a dog trainer and behaviour specialist as we were at a loss as to what we were doing wrong. Once her mental issues were diagnosed and explained to us, we were better able to anticipate and cope with her. She improved over the years and we can now see when she is having one of her ‘episodes’ and can compensate for them accordingly. Unfortunately for our dog, while one of our rescue kittens grew into a loving, licky, ginger cat, the other grew into a naughty- tortie who regularly winds our dog up at every opportunity! (She regularly winds us up too!)
Since moving here we have also had many rescue chickens and a few rescue ducks. How I loved watching them frolicking in the garden and how I panicked each time they would create a ruckus – just in case one of our local foxes decided day time was a good time to hunt!
Our most recent rescue, however, was a different kind of bird. A bird we called Ivy Preen.
During the summer of 2018 we got a call detailing how a friend of my sisters was working in his garden, cutting down the Ivy growing on his house and into the gutters. When removing the Ivy he dislodged a nest from the gutter. Inside the nest was a lone hatchling sparrow. The nest was put into an open ice cream tub and placed as close to the gutter as possible and left for many hours. The mother bird did not return.
The video shows her story and does it so much better than I can put into words. All I can say is that it was an honour to be her foster Mum. That goes for every animal we have had in our care.
There is a lot of controversy about taking in and caring for wild animals. I remember the occasions when we would get a call about a hedgehog, after days of it being spotted during daylight in someone’s garden and, worst of all, after they tried to help it by giving it a ‘nice bowl of milk’. The horror and despair we would feel every time something like this happened – people trying to be kind but killing the creature by accident. Hogs are actually lactose intolerant and milk makes them very ill and often kills them. Plus any Hedgehog spotted in daylight for any length of time is often very ill and beyond help if left longer.
On the plus side, I also remember how quickly word spread, as soon as people knew where the ‘crazy animal family’ lived, we would get injured and unwanted animals handed into us quite regularly. One such instance was so bemusing it stays with me all these years later – I heard our porch door slam during a bank holiday weekend and upon going to investigate, discovered a large paper sack, the sort you buy dog food in…. and it was moving! When I opened it up and peered inside there was a small bag of corn and a lame pigeon! Attached to the sack was a note reading ‘please look after this’. Luckily we had not gone away for the bank holiday weekend!
Anyway, I digress… the point I am trying to make is that although well meaning people sometimes make mistakes it doesn’t mean they should do nothing. The most important thing is to follow your instinct if you think a creature is in need but to know when you are out of your depth and to contact someone who knows what to do if you are unsure. An animal sanctuary or rescue, the local vet… as long as the correct person is reached in time a lot of these animals can be saved.
I hope you enjoy the Ivy Preen video and our Wildlife in an English Garden video as much as me and my family do. If you too want some wildlife in your garden, I personally recommend googling Jacobi Jayne for wild bird food, Hedgehog food and accessories. That is a good way to get started.
Sometimes in life it is far too easy to get absorbed by things and to lose sight of what is actually important. This is especially true, I feel, when (thanks to a virus which has seemingly infected the whole world and resulted in many of us having our lives and livelihoods turned upside down and seemingly put on indefinite pause…) you have little else to focus on and push your energies towards.
This year has been, for the aforementioned reasons, a very strange year to a varying degree for everyone. Ordinarily I am a relatively busy person, guiding fossil hunting trips, attending events with my performer husband or planning and making our travel documentaries. After a promising start filming our Romania travel video in late-February, that went on hold this year due to the virus.
This gave me more free time than normal and as a result I spotted what appeared to be a fun photo competition online. As we didn’t have much else to focus on, I decided to give it a go. The competition worked on a daily ‘public votes’ system and encourages you to ask your friends and family to vote for you to get you to the top. Greg and I decided to do this and, of course, posted about the competition on our Facebook pages.
The competition was due to run for about three weeks, and everybody was allowed (and indeed encouraged) to vote daily. To keep it interesting and make it more fun over that time, we decided to do an amusing video and photo based campaign to attract attention and gain more votes.
It worked a treat. By the end of day one we reached the top position (there were about eighty other contestants from around the world involved). We were thrilled and encouraged by this.
As the days went by, our campaign was well received and we were getting some lovely support and encouragement from our friends. The competition started to hot up a couple of days in and we quickly found that three of us were well in front of all the rest and leapfrogging each other for the top spot. This added a sense of excitement and the fun of competition, and made us push even harder with our ‘campaign’!
Our campaign spread further still to various online friendship and worldwide community groups one or both of us is a part of. Our votes continued to increase at a steady pace, day and night, and messages of support came pouring in. It was wonderful. We stayed in the top spot, closely followed by one other contestant, leaving the rest far behind as our votes increased. A fair amount of our time each day went into either making more promotional material for the campaign or to thanking everyone for their kind words and support – we are used to promoting our travel videos and shows, so we were lucky that we already knew what we were doing on the promotional side of things!
Then at 2:30 in the morning, exactly one week into the competition, our rival for the winning spot sent us a threatening email.
I’ll repeat that, because you are probably as shocked as we were by the sudden turn in what was for us an enjoyable competition filled with love, fun and community spirit.
At 2:30 in the morning, exactly one week into the competition, our rival for the winning spot sent us a threatening email.
She accused us of somehow cheating as she witnessed our votes increasing in the night even though we are UK contestants. She threatened to report us to the competition organisers as well as to slander us in various online community groups. We were horrified. We had entered the competition expecting a light-hearted bit of fun (with a lovely prize if we won, but one with no monetary value) and enjoy a healthy bit of competition while we were at it. Now we were being falsely accused and threatened!
We photographed the threat. As she had threatened to report us to the organisers, and knowing we had done nothing wrong, we immediately reported the situation with the competition organisers ourselves, wanting it resolved but not wanting to be baited by her and end up pointlessly fighting with this deluded woman.
As she had also threatened to slander our names in communities which we are a part of, we also privately told our supporters on Facebook, many of whom are members of those communities, exactly what was happening. We requested that they ‘fight fire with love’ (as is our community’s way) and not to retaliate in any way, but merely continue to vote. We also asked people to leave a comment in the comment section on the voting website letting everyone know if they were voting for us from other countries, in the hopes that she would believe how we were getting the nightly votes if she saw it with her own eyes.
In the meantime, of course, we continued our campaign with the sense of fun which we had carried into it throughout.
Our supporters were (and are) fantastic and did exactly as we asked.
This did not satisfy our rival however. We then received evidence from friends that the woman in question was now posting hateful comments about not only us but our kind supporters as well on her Facebook page. Her friends were joining in with the nastiness too.
It baffled me that these people were turning a fun competition into something nasty. They were accusing anyone who wrote something nice about us of ‘being nasty’ (although all they had done was say nice things about me, they hadn’t mentioned anyone else), they were being unduly horrible about our entry picture, they were attacking our personalities and honour and the competition suddenly didn’t feel fun and competitive anymore. It felt dark. It felt cruel.
All due to this one bitter woman and her unpleasant friends, criticising people they don’t know, have never met or even had any form of contact with.
Everything about it seemed wrong to me and to Greg, it was so opposed to everything that we are used to given the people we have chosen to surround ourselves with in our everyday lives. We had put so much energy into this contest, had become so full of enthusiasm and happiness due to our supporters and the sense of loving community around us. It was those supporters who lifted us up again, told us to keep going, that it would be fine, that they will push even harder for us and to ignore her bitter jealousy. So we did.
Then the competition organisers came back to us. They too were full of reassurance and kind words, telling us not to worry and that they would put a pause on the voting while they figured out what to do. We felt better that morning, knowing we had done the right thing.
Then a statement went on their website which made it sound like something bad was going on between two contestants and involved cheating.
They messaged us to say that the slander and threats were not their concern and that they suspected that both of our votes were too high to be genuine and so were changing the competition to be a private judges vote instead of a public one (to be clear, we are talking an average of about 300 votes per day – we are not talking about millions of votes here!).
We were once again horrified, disgusted and quite honestly gutted. I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. The certainty we had done nothing wrong, that we had been victim to threats and unfounded accusations and responded only with kindness and by reporting it to the people in charge. I felt like an innocent child accused of wrong doing only to be told by the teacher or parent that you turned to for reassurance or help that you are just as bad and that they don’t care.
I had a couple of hours of this feeling, this darkness in my core and the unfairness of it all circling round and round in my head. Greg too seemed to be experiencing the same emotions and turmoil as myself. He felt defeated and so distraught.
After the initial shock, however, Greg had a performer’s response. He felt the need to immediately turn on a camera and speak to our audience, our supporters, our friends. We recorded a private message to all of our supporters explaining the situation, thanking them from the bottom of our hearts for all they have done for us and requesting that they take that love, that support and that community momentum we had all built up together and to put it somewhere that actually matters.
We wanted to help the marine charity we have been fundraising for.
The world virus situation and lock down had so far prevented us from being able to raise money for the Cetacean Research and Rescue Unit this year and so we had set up an online interactive show intended to celebrate the end of the contest, have some fun and do some good by raising some money for them. Now we saw this as a chance to really spread the word and to use this opportunity to turn something bad into something wonderful.
Our friends’ goodness and love continued to shine, as the community got behind this idea. Within the first twelve hours they had helped us to raise £423 for our charity.
In a time of uncertainty, a time when many people have lost their jobs, so many have died, so many are struggling with money as a result of this terrible virus and yet so many people have taken up our cause to save the sea and help the creatures within.
Fliss the mermaid has been unable to swim this year, unable to perform, to raise awareness and until now had been unable to raise any money to help the cause close to her heart. Today her heart is singing, full of the love and joy that being part of a loving, kind and giving community can instil. That may sound a bit twee to some, but it is the honest truth.
I am so grateful to my husband, our family, friends and supporters and every good person out there who would rather spread joy, happiness and love than spread nastiness and cruelty. Despite the damage that humans inflict on each other and the world around us, I find myself surrounded by the caring, loving and considerate sort and it gives me such hope.
From the ashes good things really can and do grow. By the time we are releasing this blog post, our incredible supporters have now raised £700 for the Cetacean Research and Rescue Unit – a situation which leaves us all in the mood for a happy dance… but we’ll leave that to Baby Bonnie, ANY, and the Lavender Dodos…
Thank you all, for everything you have done for us and the charity!
Stay safe, stay glorious and be splendid to each other.
P.S. If you would like to help the charity, you can find our fundraiser HERE.
P.P.S. In the end they changed the rules of the competition so my entry was no longer in contention (they made it about makeup and props when we had chosen a more ‘natural’ look to stand out in the original competition). This means I didn’t get the main prize of having myself drawn as a vampire by an artist.
P.P.S. Luckily, one of our incredible supporters even took care of this!
Whether they are the jungle ruins and temples of the Maya in Mexico, the Ancient Greek cities of Hierapolis or Laodicea in Turkey, or the various castles and fortresses which we visited across Romania following the legend of Vlad Dracula III, I always relish the opportunity to be in a place where the past can be seen around you. A place where you can pause and almost conjure up the ‘ghosts of the past’ in your mind’s eye.
I can remember very well sitting atop the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan, looking down past the temples below and along the Street of the Dead. I’m not sure that I had initially sat down to look at the view so much as I had to catch my breath. We had gone from one morning waking up at sea level on the Isle of Wight in a cold February, to the following morning, quite early, climbing steep and uneven pyramid steps at an altitude of over 7000 feet in the hot Mexican sun.
The shock from a change in conditions, added to the fact that we were just coming out of the winter – so Christmas binge eating and being a lot less physically active than I usually am during my main show seasons or while we are travelling, meant that climbing up and down the various pyramids was a struggle, and so, having reached the top, a sit down was a necessity… but I digress.
Sat at the top of the Pyramid of the Moon, and looking down the ‘Street of the Dead’, with a few tourists and traders milling about below, it was quite easy to start to imagine the whole site back in time a couple of millennia and get images of the site at its peak. To imagine the pyramids not as ruins, but as freshly built and maintained places where the gods were honoured. It is easy for a person sat where I was, in their mind’s eye, to see the tourists fade and ancient people moving around the site, each with their own purpose. Dashing to a temple to thank the gods for something good in their lives or to to offer up a prayer for a sick relative – or maybe something as mundane as dashing home so that they were not late for a cooked meal.
In this blog post, however, I did not set out to talk about the metaphorical ghosts conjured up by the imagination, nor did I originally intend to write as much as I have about Mexico and Teotihuacan. When I sat down to write I was focused on our Isle of Man travel adventure, ‘The Isle of Man – Railways, Castles and Seals’, and in particular about the ‘Ghost Dog’ of Peel Castle.
I have found a number of websites which recount the legends of the ghost dog of Peel Caste, but, in order to be thorough, I am going to base this blog post on the oldest written account I can find, that recorded by George Waldron in ‘The History and Description of the Isle of Man’, published in 1731. For anyone wanting to dive into the source material, the entire book has been scanned and made available through Google here (complete with beautiful old fashioned ‘s’s which look like ‘f’s, and can make for some interesting reading), and for those interested, a little more background about the publication of the tome and it’s author can be found here.
We begin, therefore, the tale of Mauthe Doog, the ghostly dog of Peel Castle. Take a moment, either in reality or in your mind, to prepare yourself for a ghostly tale. Turn off the lights, light a campfire (only if you are outdoors, or have a fireplace, obviously – if not, find a video of a fire on YouTube), pause for a moment to cook some marshmallows on the fire (this will take longer if you only have the fire on YouTube). Once you have the appropriate atmosphere created, the story can begin, with George Waldron’s own words.
They say, that an Apparition called, in their language, the Mauthe Doog, in the shape of a large black spaniel with curled shaggy hair, was used to haunt Peel Castle; and has been frequently seen in every room, but particularly in the Guard-Chamber, where, as soon as candles were lighted, it came and lay down before the fire in preference of all the soldiers, who at length, by being so much accustomed to the sight of it, lost great part of the terror they were seized with on its first appearance.
I must admit that I had read various accounts of the ghost dog, many of which mentioned Waldron as a source. Many of them referred to a large black dog, or even a ghostly hound. The word which few of them saw fit to include was ‘spaniel’. The idea of a group of hardened soldiers garrisoning a castle being ‘seized with terror’ by a giant black ghost dog or large ghostly hound I consider to be the makings of a good ghost story. Add in the word ‘spaniel’, however, and it presents to me as more of a comedy sketch than a ghost dog.
Especially as it was in the reign on King Charles (both King Charles II was king in England and Charles, King of Derby, was king in Mann), I now can’t help picturing a ghostly black King Charles Spaniel, its ears flopping around somewhat comically in the way that the ears of King Charles Spaniels tend to do, and all of these soldiers screaming and standing on chairs – like the lady in the Tom and Jerry cartoons every time she sees the titular mouse. It even suggests to me a possible origin for the ghost story.
Let us assume for the moment that there was a black spaniel living somewhere in Peel, who had become lost. It found it’s way to the castle, where, dark and cold, it sought out the heat of a fire. This bumbling little spaniel wanders into the Guard-Chamber and flops down by the fire.
The guards, who had been sat by the fire (perhaps even scaring each other with ghosts stories) freak out at the sight of a black creature suddenly bursting in, perhaps casting large shadows from the fire. When their commanding officer rushes in to see the commotion – which has scared the poor dog off in the meantime – the men, not wanting to admit they had been scared by a spaniel, modify the story slightly to bring in a supernatural element.
Let us ignore my meagre attempts to rationalise this big, scary, ghostly hound into a case of mistaken identity with a floppy-eared spaniel for a moment, and delve into the darkest part of the legend of the Mauthe Doog.
Despite the soldiers becoming accustomed to the ghost dog, it appears they never got over their fear entirely as none of them wanted to risk being alone with it. One passage in particular was its haunt, and it was the passage a guard must pass through at night after locking up the castle gates in order to take the keys to the Captain in his apartment. The men always did this duty in pairs so that they did not have to go alone… until one fateful night! I shall let Waldron pick up the story here:
One night a fellow being drunk, and by the strength of his liquor being rendred more daring than ordinary, laugh’d at the simplicity of his companions, and tho’ it was not his turn to go with the keys, would needs take that office upon him, to testify his courage. All the soldiers endeavour’d to dissuade him, but the more they said, the more resolute he seemed, and swore that he desired nothing more than that Mauthe Doog would follow him, as it had done the others, for he would try it if it were Dog, or Devil.
After having talked in a very reprobate manner for some time, he snatched up the keys and went out of the guard-room.
In some time after his departure a great noise was heard, but nobody had the boldness to see what occasioned it, till the Adventurer returning, they demanded the knowledge of him; but as loud and as noisy as he had been at leaving them, he was now become sober and silent enough, for he was never heard to speak more: and tho’ all the time he lived, which was three days, he was entreated by all those who came near him, either to speak, or if he could not do that, to make some signs by which they might understand what had happened to him, yet nothing intelligible could be got from him, only, that by the distortion of his limbs and features, it might be guess’d that he died in agonies more than is common in a natural death.
So there we have it, a man so terrified by his encounter with the Mauthe Doog that he died in agony over a period of three days. The ghost dog, apparently, was never seen by the soldiers after that time. This (say the critics of my brilliantly formulated ‘the Mauthe Doog may have just been a lost spaniel’ theory) surely proves once and for all that not only is the Mauthe Doog truly a ghost hound, but also that the soldiers in the castle were right to fear it… or does it?
The first, and arguably most noticeable, problem with this story of the Mauthe Doog is that it doesn’t actually feature the ghostly creature at all. I will admit, had the man returned from his task and spent the remainder of his life babbling incoherently about the black dog and its floppy ears, that we would then have a strong case that in some way the black dog could be associated with this man’s death – but he actually never said a word. Had the story been that the man vanished and was discovered the following morning in the passageway and covered in bite marks like a dog’s, but too big for any ordinary dog, or perhaps immediately cauterised by the dogs devilishly hot teeth, we would definitely have a case for Scooby and the Mystery Machine to investigate. Even if they eventually discovered that the Mauthe Doog was merely the creepy janitor in a mask, at least there was a mystery to solve.
There is, however, no mention of the Mauthe Doog. Let us look over the evening’s events one more time and, like Poirot, engage our ‘little grey cells’. The salient facts of the evening are as follows:
A soldier gets incredibly drunk.
The soldier walks out in the dark across an unlit Peel Castle with uneven ground.
A loud noise is heard.
The soldier returns, looking the worse for wear and unable to speak.
The soldier dies in agony three days later.
Let us agree that one possible explanation of this series of events is that our poor soldier encountered a ghost dog, and that ghost dog did something which put such fear into this soldier that he not only never spoke again, but was so terrified that he dies of fright three days later.
I would like to propose another possibility. What if the man wandered out drunk, and while he was out and about he slipped or tripped on some of the stone around the castle, and managed to bang his head on one of the many stone walls around a castle. Having hit his head hard enough to cause some serious damage, and to give himself concussion, he sought out his comrades. The remainder of the soldiers, also drunk and with little medical expertise, assumed that this must relate to the ghost dog they had been talking about before and so no medical attention was sought for the man’s head, leading to his death three days later, and a poor floppy-eared spaniel (who by now had returned to his owner in Peel and was by this time curled up on a hearth rug in front of a fire and chewing on the 17th Century equivalent of a ‘Bonio’) took the blame.
Here’s the thing, though. Despite having looked into this story and the other possible explanations, you will still find Mauthe Doog, brilliantly animated, within our documentary on the Isle of Man when we came to visit Peel Castle.
This is because often, when we are travelling around the world, we find that local legends and local stories can be even more interesting than the actual history of a place!
I think this blog post is now more than long enough, so it only remains for me to say thank you all for reading, and please do take unbelievably good care of yourselves, and of each other.
I didn’t realise how little I knew about Romania until one morning, early in 2020 (before we knew what chaos the pandemic would cause to the year), when, in the shower (source of many of my greatest ideas, for reasons unknown), I suddenly came up with the idea that we could choose Romania as the destination for our next travel adventure.
I know that Felicity has already written about some of the story of our decision to go from her point of view, but I wanted to share a little of my ignorance at the time when I suggested it.
We had been hoping that we would be headed somewhere else for our first travel adventure video of the year, and had started putting plans in place for that trip until we found a company who suggested that they may be interested in sponsoring our video there another year. So we put a hold on that, and began looking for somewhere else to visit.
The idea that we could travel Romania to search for ‘Dracula’s Castle’ came to me as I knew that one of Felicity’s favourite book series by Karen Chance featured the historical figures of Vlad Dracula III and his family as major characters. I suggested it, and within hours we had our flights booked and were busily investigating places to visit and film.
This is where my ‘confession of ignorance’ has to come in. Before we decided to travel around Romania for our video, I knew next to nothing about the country. I vaguely remembered that Michael Palin had been there on his travel series ‘Europe’, but the closest I could get to an image of Romania in my mind was probably a very stereotypical ’Hammer Horror’ image of Victorian carriages pulled along mountain roads in the middle of the night! I didn’t really know much of the history of Romania, and I knew nothing of the beauty and majesty that awaited us there.
That is one of the reasons I like to travel. There are places (Mexico springs to mind, especially La Paz) where I could easily see Felicity and I returning to year after year as a ‘holiday’, but we choose not to. We usually look at the time we have available and choose to travel somewhere new, to learn about a new place, to have a new adventure! This doesn’t mean we won’t return to Mexico or Italy, for example, just that when it comes down to it I think we would both choose a new travel destination over a regular ‘holiday’ destination. This is at its very best at times like our Romania travel adventure, where we started our planning with very few preconceptions, and everything that we found in our research filled us with excitement and wonder until I couldn’t believe we had not heard of most of the places we visited before we began our research.
The first thing I learned, given that we were going to be ‘Seeking Dracula’s Castle’ in the video, was that there really is no shortage of stunning castles and fortresses in Romania. It seemed we kept finding them – even after we thought we had finished planning, and even had to reject a few beautiful castles and palaces as we couldn’t make them fit (even very loosely) the definition of ‘Dracula’s Castle’, I stumbled across an image of Corvin Castle.
This ‘fairytale’ castle is one of the most visually stunning I have seen, so when we discovered that Vlad Dracula was likely held in dungeons beneath the castle we immediately added it to our list, and we are so glad now that we did.
When we visited Corvin Castle, having gained permission to use our drone there, we got some stunning shots for the video. We discovered a ‘Hogwarts’ style magical castle, complete with the sound of a lute being played by a musician which filled the air and added to the magic – almost as much as the snowfall which filled the air next.
Eight months ago I had never heard of Corvin Castle, yet now that castle holds a very special place in my memories. I know some of its history, I know the stories of the well inside and some of the people who lived (or were imprisoned) within its walls. As we were leaving the owner of one of the souvenir shops around the site told us about the coins and some of the symbols of Vlad Dracul (Dracula’s father), and we learned even more history of the country beyond the castle.
This was true for nearly every part of our time in Romania. I had not expected the large bustling city of Bucharest with its Natural Geology Museum filled with fossils and all laid out in quite a Victorian/Edwardian style which suited us perfectly and we both really enjoyed, despite not being ‘city’ people. Nor had I expected the roads to be as good as they were, and so scenic. From driving up towards Bran, to a perilous feeling mountain road through the snow near Bucegi, to passing castles on hilltops as we made our way towards Poenari, the entire journey was filled with incredible views.
In January 2020, had you mentioned Romania to me, I would only really have been able to tell you that Vlad Dracula lived there, and pointed to ideas of Romania gleaned from the pages of Bram Stoker’s book (written by a man who had never visited the country!). Now despite making Vlad the focus of ‘Seeking Dracula’s Castle’, our Romania Travel Adventure has left me with a much better feel for the country and its people, and we have come away having learned enough about the country to fill our travel adventure documentary and a number of blog posts!
Travel certainly does broaden the mind and that is why we will continue to find new places to travel to and new things to see!
Thank you for reading, and please take unbelievably good care of yourselves, and of each other!
P.S. We are very pleased to announce that Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle is now available on Prime Video! Watch it in the UK HERE, and in the USA HERE!
PP.S. You can see our short follow up to our Romania video, ‘Seeking Dracula in Whitby’, here:
Let’s be honest with ourselves – there have been a fair few surprises this year. As a few people who have seen my ‘Non-Psychic ‘Psychic’ Show’ have said, perhaps I should have seen it coming, but in the real world we all find ourselves doing things we hadn’t expected.
In August and early September I had expected to be out performing shows for the whole month – the Isle of Wight Steam Show, Bekonskot Model Village and the Legendary Llangollen Fairy Festival were just some of the events at which I had been expecting to perform over the summer. What I had not expected was to spend most of my time in the latter half of August and the first half of September writing, filming, and creating computer generated animations for a short science-fiction film set around a team of pilots racing across space. Especially with the spacecraft pilots including marionettes, eggs, and Dodos!
Indeed, Dodos have become a big part of our lives since April. What was once a term for extinct flightless birds has now become one of the most commonly used words around our house. Questions like ‘what colour beak should this Dodo have’ or ‘I think the Dodos will really enjoy this’ have become commonplace. For those of you who don’t know, my sister-in-law Jenny started crocheting Dodos at the start of lockdown and, after we created a magic trick build around them, ‘The Lavender Dodos’ was adopted by viewers of our online shows as the collective name for those who enjoyed the show. We have gone on to create the ‘Lavender Dodos Assemble’ Facebook group, introduced ‘Sparkles, King of the Dodos’ as a character in the shows, and Dodos have become a regular part of everyday life here.
While the whole country was in lockdown we began producing the ‘Greg Chapman (Almost) Live’ show, a fortnightly comedy and magic show going out online. Initially we did this with pre-recorded segments and ‘live’ links, and then due to technological issues we started putting them out every other Sunday with a pre-recorded first segment at 5, and a live improvised story at 6 (which we continue to do). However, as lockdown lifted we started to see a drop off in the number of people watching the pre-recorded show as it went out, and most people were watching it afterwards. So we began to look at ways to modify what we do so that some episodes are designed with the live feel in mind, while others are focused on people being able to watch at any time.
This culminated on Sunday 13th September with the release of ‘Race Across Space’, the first time we have pulled many of the characters from the ‘Greg Chapman (Almost) Live’ show into an extended ‘film’ format, working together and interacting as opposed to all being in their own segments through the shows. If you want to avoid potential spoilers, you can watch the full half-hour film here now:
Creating a half hour film crossing through different characters created a new set of challenges. We needed a single plot that would run through and which would be engaging enough to keep people watching, but simple enough that we could bounce around the various characters (and even throw in some surreal moments) without confusing people or derailing the main through road of action.
A race seemed the obvious solution for this first film. As we wanted the characters to interact with each other, but we also needed to work with many of the characters individually to film, the idea of a race across space seemed to fit best, with each set of characters within their own craft.
Once I had the script written, there were only a couple of minor problems left. We needed seven spacecraft, inside and outside, and we needed to be able to create whole worlds for them to race in.
For the outside shots I wanted to use computer animation to allow us to build the best race possible. I have some basic knowledge of CG animation, but am by no means an expert, and even for an expert the idea of building all of the spaceships and buildings we needed from scratch would be a huge ask, but luckily I got some help. A company named KitBash3D create and sell CG models to use within animations and they had a range of steampunk buildings and spaceships available – and even better, they were prepared to help us out with a special discount to support the show! I now had most of the models I needed to put together in the computer and create the worlds, and animate the races.
We had only one minor issue. My laptop, which Felicity bought for me last year as a powerful laptop to cope with all of our usual computer editing and effects on our travel videos, couldn’t cope with the level of computer animation we wanted. So I then had to become a laptop technician as I bought some more RAM memory online and, with the aid of YouTube videos, upgraded my computer! It still took almost a day to render out each minute of the animation, and we had to delay the release of the film for a week as a result, but we could make the film we wanted.
While I was busy learning to be a CG animator and computer technician, Felicity and Jenny were busy making ‘real world’ magic as they painted the physical sets for our puppets and Dodos. Painting is not my forte (as proved on the one day I tried to help them, and in about five minutes made such a mess of the painting that it took the two of them much of the following day to correct my mess). Once I had been banned from picking up a paintbrush the set design and painting went incredibly, and there was a wonderful moment the first time I saw Bonnie and Any, our marionettes, in front of their set through the camera view screen, and it looked wonderful!
Filming was great fun, every time we added new characters to their sets, and got to try out their scenes, it felt magical. Most of the time, for reasons of time, space and equipment, if we need a backdrop we have used a green screen and edit the background in afterwards on the computer. So to see all of our characters in these wonderful sets was beautiful.
From there it was just a ‘simple’ matter of editing all of the different elements together, and adding the sound effects and music to the video. It always amazes me how much the addition of sound and music completes a video. We find the same thing with our travel videos, and I always like to spend a lot of time choosing the right music for the different moments.
As well as finding the right music for this film, however, I spent a lot of time trying to find the right engine noises for each of the spaceships – using everything from engineered alien sound effects to Aston Martin and aeroplane engines. When they all came together and we had the final video, however, I was incredibly pleased with how the whole film came together!
Just before I wrap up this little insight into the video, I feel I ought to offer up some thanks to all of those who helped make the film, and are responsible for it being as good as it is. Thanks to Felicity, of course, for putting up with my stresses over the computer problems, taking a starring role, helping create the sets, and everything else she does. Thanks to Jenny for painting the incredible sets, and making the Dodos! Also a special thank you to all of those people who provided video or character voices throughout – Robby Measday, The Captain of the Lost Waves, Steve Wardhaugh, Rob Norris, Pete Dodo and Amber Dodo. Thanks to Czech Marionettes who introduced us to our marionette co-stars, and Kitbash3D for helping us get the 3D models!
Finally, thanks to all of you who read the blog, and watch and share the videos which we create to help new people find them.
Thank you for reading, and please take unbelievably good care of yourselves and of each other.
P.S. While we wait to be able to do live shows again, our videos are the only way we make money, and we do this through the support of people buying us a ‘virtual coffee’ at www.ko-fi.com/greg.
Chichen Itza is probably the most famous and certainly the most visited of all the ancient Mayan sites in Mexico. The Maya name of the site, ‘Chichen Itza’, means ‘At the mouth of the well of the Itza’ but another possible translation for Itza is ‘enchanter (or enchantment) of the water’.
Located in the Yucatan region, Chichen Itza was one of the largest Maya cities and its variety of architectural styles (Central Mexico as well as the Puuc and Chenes styles) suggests it had a diverse population. Chichen Itza was a major economic power in the northern Maya lowlands, participating in the water-borne circum-peninsular trade route, and they were able to obtain locally unavailable resources from distant areas (such as obsidian and gold). Between AD 900 and 1050 Chichen Itza expanded and became a powerful regional capital controlling north and central Yucatan but its power extended down the east and west coasts of the peninsula too.
From its earlier occupation between 750 and 900 AD to its rise in the 10th century Chichen was a bustling city but after this time, the history gets rather sketchy. One source suggests in the 13th century they were conquered by Mayapan while more recent archaeological evidence suggests that Chichen Itza had declined before the Mayapan became a powerful entity.
Many of the Ancient Maya and Aztec sites we visited while in Mexico filming ‘Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty’ had apparently suffered similar fates – usually it appeared the city had grown too large and it became impossible to sustain resulting in the inhabitants being forced to leave and seek out water and new land to grow their crops etc. Over time the ancient cities were forgotten and the jungles reclaimed them. There is no evidence to suggest that this was the case at Chichen Itza, however. In fact records suggest that the cenotes located in and around the city of Chichen Itza survive to this day and one in particular, the Sacred Cenote, remained a place of pilgrimage for the Maya people (which we found ironic as it was the one thing we visited while in Chichen Itza which was not swarming with people as it required a short walk from the main site!).
During the Spanish conquest in 1532 the Spaniards used Chichen Itza as a base and faced growing hostility from the Mayans which forced them to barricade themselves in while the Maya cut off their supply routes. No reinforcements arrived and when the Spanish attempted to break the siege they lost around 150 soldiers and then in 1534 they were forced to flee Chichen Itza. By 1588 the Spaniards had conquered all of the Yucatan Peninsular and absorbed Chichen Itza and used the site as a cattle ranch.
In 1483 John Lloyd Stephens wrote a book ‘Incidents of Travel in Yucatan’ which first introduced the site to the wider world and inspired many more visitors and exploration eventually leading to the much of the site being restored and becoming one of the most prized and famous examples of an ancient Mayan city in existence today.
The most famous buildings in Chichen Itza are the El Castillo and the massive ballcourt. While they are certainly impressive (and all of the remains in Chichen Itza are worth looking at), I must say that Greg and I were actually somewhat disappointed when we visited this grand site. Our guide book was somewhat out of date and talked of the views from the top of the remains and what you can see as you look around inside them…. That is no longer possible at Chichen Itza. Everything is roped off. Its location to the nearby tourist destinations means that Chichen Itza has become a major coach trip destination for all tourists. With the huge increase in tourism, I guess it became necessary to reduce the human interaction to protect these ancient treasures.
With the increase in tourism came the increase of souvenir stands. Greg and I tried to arrive at opening time for each place we visited in Mexico and this usually meant the sites were either deserted or certainly quiet while we were there. This was not the case at Chichen Itza! Upon arrival at opening time we were forced to join an already extensive queue to enter the site. The entrance to the site includes a large market area and we watched the vendors opening their stalls and setting up for the bustling day ahead. We had seen other such set ups at other sites – a market at the entrance and then the well preserved archaeological site within. I assumed this would be the case at Chichen Itza but it was not quite so as once you get through the gate the market continues. On every path between ruins there is a continuous row of stands selling all sorts of souvenirs.
I had very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand we were there to explore the ancient city, not to stock up on modern gifts. We found that exploring the city was not possible in the way we had hoped but at the same time, this city was alive with people which it would have been back at its height of occupation. The stands would have been a variety of everyday goods and necessities rather than solely souvenirs and the crowds (I assume) would have been going about their every day lives rather than posing for selfies in their holiday and beach wear but the energy and crowds would have been there all the same. It was a different experience to any of the other archaeological sites we visited in Mexico.
I actually largely preferred the other sites. I am not generally one for crowds. However I would still recommend everyone visit Chichen Itza if you have the chance. Just know what to expect. If you are just interested in the history and exploring the ruins themselves, other sites such as Calakmul, Palenque, Uxmal or Yaxchilan will be more your cup of tea. If you like walking around the ruins rather than climbing and interacting with them, but want somewhere quiet, I would recommend places like El Tajin. However, if you just want to see a Mayan site and you aren’t afraid of big crowds, include a visit to the most famous site of all, visit Chichen Itza.
I strongly recommend you save your spending money for this site too and stock up on souvenirs while you are there. As we walked around, it almost felt that this site is more about the market than the ruins! You can find a huge assortment of things from the typical tourist bits (such as magnets and factory made statues and t-shirts) to hand crafted, traditional treasures. Things such as carved drums, Mayan and Aztec calendars, carved masks and statues, wind instruments and precious stone ornaments and so much more and all at great prices too. For any of you that love souvenir shopping, save it for Chichen Itza and you can get a bit of history and ancient culture while you shop!
I enjoyed shopping at Chichen Itza and am so grateful that sites like this exist. It gives package holiday style tourists somewhere to visit and see something of another country and it keeps the other sites free for those of us that want to delve deeper and do more than shop or take a selfie. Either way, whatever your reason, I would recommend a trip to the famous Chichen Itza.
Many of my blogs tend to focus on nature, animals and marine life in particular. If you have read any of them you will already know this. I have such a fascination for the sea and a love of the creatures who live there, that my husband and I set up a marine based conservation show called Curios Aquatica in the hopes that through education and entertainment we can help to make a difference. The plastic, fishing nets and rope, the oil and noise pollution constantly harming the sea and the life within. The over-fishing harming many species, but sharks especially so. The cetacean parks such as SeaWorld imprisoning and torturing these sentient, clever and highly evolved species. We set up Curious Aquatica to raise awareness about all of these and to raise money for marine charities already trying to help save the seas.
The sea is my passion but I would help any animal in need and through the years my family and I have cared for many animals, many of which were brought to us injured. Through careful care and rehabilitation those animals were able to return to the wild once more.
This morning I was browsing on Facebook whilst getting up the energy to clamber out of bed to face the day (not that there has been all that much to do during lock down as we have been in strict shielding in my household!) when I saw a post about a stranded dolphin, less than a mile from our house, uploaded a mere eight minutes previously. I searched the comments to see if the situation had been resolved and upon finding that they were struggling to get in touch with anyone to rescue the creature, I leapt from the bed (startling Greg considerably as I am not in the habit of such lively behaviour first thing of a morning) and started throwing on clothes, explaining to Greg the situation and encouraging him to do likewise.
Once dressed I located some buckets (I didn’t know how ‘beached’ the dolphin was from the sparse information in the post and if the dolphin had been out of the water it would need to be kept moist), and a blanket (we looked for our stretcher too but couldn’t immediately locate it and didn’t want to delay any longer) and off to the site my sister, Greg and I went.
Upon arrival we were met by a few bystanders and one lady trying to get into a dry suit. She explained that she was from the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) and that she was trying to get in touch with other agencies to help, but she was struggling. While my sister tried to help this lady by trying to phone these agencies herself, Greg and I assessed the situation.
The dolphin (a young bottlenose from the look of it) had been swimming in the causeway when the tide went out, leaving it stranded in a mud bank in the estuary. The dolphin was not, as I had first feared, stranded on the mud and drying out. It was in shallow water, caught in the mud. The biggest problem was that the dolphin was caught on its side. This meant it could not keep its blow hole out of the water and was in real danger of drowning.
Greg took one step towards the dolphin and sank instantly to his knees. It was a long way through this thick muck to reach the dolphin in its shallow bank of muddy water. With some effort Greg freed himself from the mud and raced back to our van for the 100 foot of rope we keep in there (luckily Greg is an escapologist so 100 foot of rope isn’t hard for us to lay our hands on).
I tried again to discover from the BDMLR team member what the plan was, but she was still struggling to get assistance. Her team was meant to be bringing a pontoon and boats to help aid with the dolphin rescue, but we were struggling to find out where they were or how long this would take. In desperation the coastguard and lifeboat station (and RSPCA) had also been contacted. She even asked if any of the bystanders had a boat, but none did. I explained that I was able to get out to the dolphin to support it so it wouldn’t drown, but she told me that the mud is too dangerous and that we had to wait for the groups from the other organisations, or her own team, to arrive instead. By this point she had struggled into her dry suit but felt unable to break protocol and go any further.
At this point I want to make it perfectly clear that rules are usually there for a reason. If someone had become stuck in that thick mud when the tide turned they would have been at real risk of drowning. Also, I am aware that many people panic when they become stuck and that would have made things even worse. On top of that, the dolphin was a wild animal and they can be very unpredictable. Humans need to respect animals and interact with wild animals as little as possible. This is very important to remember – and had that dolphin not been drowning at that moment I would have followed this good advice and left it to the professionals.
In this situation, however, there was no sign of the professionals coming to the rescue. The one person we had didn’t feel able to break the rules and assist us or the dolphin (although when we went ahead anyway, she did offer advice from the bank).
I know I am a good swimmer. I also know how to move across that kind of terrain without sinking or getting stuck (during my years’ training as a ranger I ended up sinking and moving through a lot nastier stuff than this mud!). I know a lot about cetaceans and how to handle wild animals while staying as safe as possible and not causing the animal in question any more harm or distress. I had my husband running down the road with his 100 foot of rope and my sister on the bank ready to assist in any way needed. I had my team and I couldn’t stand by and watch this dolphin drown when I knew we could prevent it.
I tied the rope around my waist and slithered across the mud (to the cheering of the watching crowd and the concern of the BDMLR team member) towards the dolphin. Once there I looked back and found one of the other members of the public had seen me make my move and rushed to kit up in his wet suit and was making his way towards us too, using my rope to guide him as he slid towards us. The BDMLR team member seemed torn between the fact that her job was to stop us, but her passion was clearly to save the dolphin, and so she began to offer instructions and advice from the bank.
Once the man reached me, we positioned ourselves on either side of the dolphin and carefully re-positioned it so that it was resting gently on my legs and its blowhole was finally clear of the water, and it could breathe again at last. Once able to breathe it vocalised gently to us. A few squeaky whistles and I felt as though the breath I hadn’t realised I was holding released (and Greg tells me that the same emotion was felt by everyone on the bank as the sound carried to them). I checked the dolphin over as best I could considering my pinned position and the murky water we were in, but, aside from a few scratches, I could see no injury. The more worrying thing was that the dolphin’s eyes were closed and I could feel that if we let go, the dolphin would have tipped back over onto its side.
Back on the shore some of the bystanders who had been wanting to do something, but were not sure what to do to help, had taken up the rope along with Greg to ensure that they would be able to recover me and the other helper if things started to look dangerous. The lady from the BDMLR continued to point out that she couldn’t physically help us and she had to tell us that what we were doing was dangerous and we should wait for her boat (she later spoke to Greg and told him that she was sorry that she had had to keep repeating it, but it was part of her job). Greg pointed out that we weren’t going to let the dolphin drown while we waited for a boat, which we had seen no sign of, but that as soon as her boat arrived we would be happy to hand the task over to her team. At the moment, however, we were all the dolphin had, as the professionals were either not there yet, or not able to do anything because of their rules.
Once more of her team arrived it was decided that two of them in dry suits would come into the water and take over from us, still using Greg’s rope for safety (my helper and I did say we were still fine to help in any way needed, and were not in any difficulty in the water).
The first of the team had joined us when the Coastguards arrived and the plan fell apart. The leader of the Coastguard would not let another person come out across the mud to us until their ‘mud team’ had arrived from the other side of the Island, nor would they allow one of us without dry suits to return as they didn’t have equipment to allow us to ‘safely’ cross the mud (which we had already crossed).
It was frustrating to me, my helper and the lady from the BDMLR who had joined us, as well as the other member of her team who was kitted up and ready to join us but then unable to do so. Some members of the BDMLR team admitted that while they cannot officially condone my rule breaking, they are glad we did it as the dolphin would most likely have drowned before anyone got to it if I had not.
A lot of movement then occurred on the bank. All the while I was thinking it was finally the team ready to assemble the pontoon or do something, anything, to help the dolphin in my arms but none of it was. Somehow it became an unnecessary mission to rescue us rather than the dolphin – and, Greg told me, as much time seemed to be spent by the leader of the coastguard on making sure that the public were not around as it was on anything else. Greg pointed out to another member of the team that there was no way he was letting go of my safety line while I was on the other end of it, and luckily found that most of the coastguard were much more friendly and prepared to listen than their boss. It still seemed that no amount of reassurance from us that we were fine, we were definitely NOT stuck, that we were NOT cold, that we just wanted the team to take over with the dolphin for us and we would all be fine, seemed to get through to the agencies on the bank.
In the end, boats appeared on the water (we first thought it was the coast guard but instead it was the harbour master) which we thought were the boats we had been waiting for to assist the dolphin – but no, they were there for us. More faffing followed and the result was that I had to let the BDMLR lady take my position while the Ventnor Mud Specialist Coastguard Service took me to shore.
They did not ‘rescue’ me -despite what they apparently told a member of the press later. I had informed them that I was fine, and both of us in the water (and, I later found out, Greg on the bank), made it clear that I could get myself to shore, but would be happy to allow them to take me themselves if they preferred (I had been in the water over an hour and could understand their concerns on that score), but only once we knew that the dolphin was not going to be left without care. There was only one thing in that estuary who needed rescuing, and that was the dolphin.
After being checked over and the Coastguard team agreeing with my assessment that I was fine, I was sent home to shower and warm up. Watching the news streams for updates afterwards, the hours passed so slowly and with such slow progress with the dolphin. Eventually they got it onto a pontoon and onto the bank to be assessed by a vet, before the decision was taken to put it down. We still don’t know the reason why it was put down, although we will update this blog if we discover the reasoning behind it.
I guess my reason for writing this particular blog is largely down to frustration. We try to raise awareness and money for charities like the BDMLR whose mission it is to save these amazing creatures, yet due to endless rules and regulations with regard to health and safety, today we saw them having to stand by, not only unable to assist in saving a dolphin, but actually having to try to tell us not to. Of course, there must be rules, but there should also be the possibility to treat each circumstance on its own merit. The professionals I spoke to all truly seemed to care as I do for these animals and yet they could not act to save it in time. Members of the Coastguard, BDMLR and the public thanked and commended me for what I had done once I was out of the water, and yet the members of the organisations had been required to try to stop me from doing it. I find it so disheartening. One of the BDMLR team even said that she would like me to do the training and join their team and I was tempted… until I realised that then I would also be bound by their rules and would have been sacked today as I would have still been unable to sit by while this dolphin drowned.
It is so difficult to do the right thing when there are rules which were designed to keep you safe, but would require you to go against your conscience and heart to follow. It is so hard.
I would like to make it clear that I am not having a go at the people who came to help. Almost without exception the BDMLR members and Coastguards were friendly and seemed torn by the problem of wanting to help save the dolphin and wanting to follow the rules. The problem comes with the lack of possibility for these people to adapt the rules to suit the situation.
Thank you for reading, stay safe,
P.S. If you would like to see us with cetaceans in happier circumstances, do watch our visit to the grey whales of Magdalena Bay, Mexico below.