Recently I was accepted onto the Travel and Nature Writing MA at Bath Spa University, which I’ll be starting later this month. In preparation for this exciting new challenge, I signed up for a travel writing workshop run by Peter Carty, who regularly writes for publications such as The Guardian. Although my focus will definitely be more on the nature half of my MA, there is a lot of overlap with travel and I would love to develop my portfolio in this area.

Peter’s workshop was extremely useful, especially the postcard exercise. Over lunch, we were let loose into London with a blank postcard. The challenge was to find a new and intriguing place and write a short travel piece about it on the postcard, including quotes from people we met along the way. As a wildlife writer I’ve had very little experience with interviews, so approaching strangers and getting quotes was daunting but rewarding. I decided to visit the Grant Museum of Zoology in Fitzrovia, which turned out to be a treasure trove of taxidermy and scientific specimens.



A jar of moles, a penis worm and a dissected rat. These are just some of the specimens on display at the Grant Museum of Zoology. But past the imposing elephant skulls and ominous, pickled jars is an intriguing display of alien-like creatures nobody would notice in the wild.

It’s said that 95% of known species of animals are smaller than a human thumb. The Grant Museum, named after British anatomist and zoologist Robert Edmond Grant, sheds light on the mysterious and microscopic in its Micrarium: a seemingly infinite display of backlit microscope slides that are creatively reflected in a mirror mounted on the ceiling. There are 20,000 slides in the whole museum, but the selection of 2000 in the Micrarium exhibit alone is impressive enough.


“It’s probably one of our more popular exhibits,” explained volunteer Margaret, “We get lots of people taking photos for Instagram.”

I can see why. Step inside this bizarre taxidermic phone box and you can observe minute insects and cross sections of tissues in astonishing and multicolour detail, painstakingly plastered across three walls. Among the specimens are the muscly leg of a flea and a whole squid measuring less than a centimetre long.

“While public displays very much focus on larger animals,” said Jack Ashby, manager of the Grant Museum, “Most natural history collections have thousands of very small specimens kept in their storerooms which are rarely shown to the public.”

Once used for research at UCL, the neighbouring university, the Micrarium now enthuses the general public instead, uncovering secrets of the miniature monsters that crawl well out of human sight. It’s not quite the blue whale at the Natural History Museum, but it’s an insight into 95% of animals on our planet, which definitely deserves a second look.

Art, Music and Dance

I began my last full day in Madrid with a bit of vintage shopping in the district Malasaña, just north of the downtown area. I’d gotten quite badly overheated from walking yesterday so I used the metro for the first time, journeying from Sol to Tribunal. Although the platforms were a little stuffy, the trains themselves were air-conditioned (unlike the ghastly London tube) and the time saved was more than worth it. As long as you knew the station at the end of the line and the direction, the metro was very easy to use and I would definitely recommend it to avoid getting hot and bothered before you even arrived anywhere!


The street to be for vintage shopping was Calle de Velarde, with second-hand shops lining both sides of the street. I pinballed out of one directly into another: Magpie Vintage, Biba Vintage and La Mona Checa to name a few. The clothes were very affordable and I bought a lovely maxi skirt from Retro City for 20€. I could have also bought about a dozen denim jackets, but after remembering my extensive existing collection back home I managed to refrain.

I stopped for a drink and a slice of carrot cake at a dinky little place by Plaza del Dos de Mayo called El 2D and wrote for a while in the shade of an outdoor table. Aside from an unfortunate amount of graffiti (and not the skilled kind) it was a perfectly nice place to sit, but lacked the striking appearance of the frescoed walls of Plaza Mayor.

I hopped back on the metro and tried my luck getting into the Prado Museum, the main Spanish national art museum. Luckily I’d timed it right and sailed straight in. When faced with such a colossal museum such as the Prado and lacking any professional art knowledge, I decided to wander into the first room that took my fancy. It was filled with vast paintings of stunning natural landscapes with one stretching across an entire wall: “Landscape at El Pardo, Mist Rising” by Antonio Muñoz Degrain (1866). I’m always most drawn to realist paintings and get a little sceptical with the more modern, interpretive types. The colours in this oil painting were beautiful; it captured the perfect moment when the sun was at its most golden, casting a soft light over the tops of the trees and the clouds. There was so much depth in the scene; you could really believe that the rider letting his horse drink in the river was many miles from the distant mountains. I loved everything about it, from the glassy reflection in the water to the fluffy clouds.

Mist Rising
Photo: Museo del Prado

Once I’d had my fill of the Prado I faced the peak of the day’s heat, which would remain at 37°C until 6pm. I’d planned on reading in El Retiro Park, but there wasn’t enough granizado de limón in the world to keep me cool enough. In addition, my sandal promptly broke, and I took that as affirmation that I should get out of the sun.

After a brief cooling off period, I ventured back out in the early evening when the temperature was far friendlier. I bought a strawberry slush this time, just to mix things up a little, and took a leisurely stroll up Calle de los Bordadores and then Calle del Arenal, where two school-age boys were busking. One was playing violin, the other cello. As well as classical pieces I also recognised Dancing Queen, Viva La Vida and Smooth Criminal, which all sounded fantastic played on strings. A little further up the street another busker was strumming Spanish guitar: the epitome of a balmy evening in Madrid.


To make my last night even more Spanish, I went to see a flamenco show. Of the many tablaos (flamenco venues) around, I chose Las Carboneras, which was just around the corner from Mercado de San Miguel. As I sipped my complimentary drink, I had to suppress a sob when one tourist asked for the Wi-Fi password. I was delighted when the waiter denied it, and instead told them to enjoy the show.

Unfortunately I had waiters marching to and fro in front of me for the duration of the performance, as well as several tourists who couldn’t sit still. It was a shame that photography without flash was permitted so there were dozens of distracting phone screens blaring. After testing my patience too far, I had to tell one man to stop because he had begun to lean into my view. It wasn’t the cheapest flamenco show in town and I wasn’t about to watch it on someone else’s screen.

Nonetheless, the show itself was electrifying, which may sound melodramatic and cliché but it genuinely was. The atmosphere created by the seven performers – four dancers, two singers and a guitarist – was nothing short of incredible. The sound of the dancers’ shoes hitting the floor was like the crack of fireworks. One minute they were spinning in a frenzy, long skirts swirling, and the next they were frozen with just their fingers clicking or their wrists twisting in slow circles.

At times I didn’t know where to look. While the dancers obviously caught the eye in their elaborate and brightly coloured dresses, I found the guitarist fascinating too. His fingers moved almost in a blur but his actions looked effortless and he barely watched what he was playing. As mesmerising as he was, I most enjoyed the parts where the only sound was the lead dancer’s feet and the other dancers’ – who took it in turns to take the stage – clapping. They watched the lead dancer’s movements like a hawk and increased or decreased the rhythm of their clapping in response. There was such dramatic contrast between the gunshot stomps and moments of utter silence. As each dance built to a dizzying climax I felt my chest tighten. The tension in the room was overwhelming.

I would be interested to see how other shows compare to Las Carboneras. It was cabaret-style seating with tables dotted haphazardly and waiters weaving between with trays of drinks. While this suited the environment and lent itself well to such an intimate and emotional performance, for the sake of being fully immersed in the whole ambience, I would have preferred more traditional theatre-style seating. The constant interruptions of drinks coming and going was irritating, not to mention inconsiderate tourists. Venues more catered towards locals may be less tolerant of taking photos, or perhaps locals don’t feel the need to take any in the first place. Even considering that, I would recommend flamenco to anyone visiting Madrid, purely to hear that explosion of sound with their own ears.


When I left the show I didn’t feel like turning in. It was a beautiful evening so I strolled to Plaza Mayor for some night photography. At 11pm the square was buzzing with activity. A saxophone was serenading diners with “Sway” and a tour group was in full swing, assembled by Felipe’s statue in the middle of the plaza. A woman walked by with her dog. Life continued just the same after dark as it did during the day. Perched on a bench, I felt perfectly safe in the bustling square. There are, without a doubt, things that a girl shouldn’t do alone at night, but in a place like downtown Madrid I felt perfectly at ease. When I got peckish I tried another portion of churros from a café and still found them hard as nails. If there was one disappointment from my trip, it was the let-down of the churros.

As I people-watched and scribbled in my journal, I reflected on the past five days. My time in Madrid had been both diverse and enlightening – my first trip alone to a non-English speaking country. While the language barrier had sometimes felt like quite the hurdle, I’d muddled through and had some incredible experiences. I’d watched terrapins up close and personal, sampled the buzz of El Rastro flea market and had been truly moved by the passion of flamenco. With a little more Spanish under my belt, I could really see myself living like a true madrileña.


A Grand Day Out

On my first day off, I decided to cram in as much natural history as I could. First I went to Bristol Zoo for a spot of nostalgia. Going to the zoo was a thing of great excitement when I was younger – though half the time I was equally excited by the gift shop as by the animals – so considering I’d heard some good things about the Bristol Zoological Society and their conservation programmes, I made the chilly walk over to Clifton.

Unusually for me, I was drawn to the reptile house. Perhaps that was partly so I could warm up, but I also fell in love with the blue poison dart frogs. I’d seen them on TV before, but as is often the case, the screen dilutes the real wonder. Shocking azure and midnight blues and black speckles, with a perfect sheen across their skin. Lacking webbed toes, these beautiful frogs aren’t strong swimmers and instead frequent leaf litter or nooks and crannies in boulders. As their name implies, poison dart frogs release toxins from their skin, so don’t taste half as good as they look.

Other reptiles also caught my eye. There was the mountain chicken frog, so named because of its likeness to poultry when eaten, and the Chinese crocodile lizard that was locally known as the “lizard of great sleepiness”. I was also privileged enough to watch a face-off between a male turquoise dwarf gecko and an olive-coloured female. The pair were rather nonchalantly standing on a vertical wall of the tank, gazing intently at one another. The male twitched his tail and turned his head sharply to the side, perhaps displaying his beautifully chiselled cheekbones in an attempt to woo the female. I watched them with my neck at a unique angle for ages while they continued to stare at one another, until eventually the female headed back down the wall, obviously unimpressed.

I ate lunch on a bench overlooking Bug World. Almost immediately I was joined by a menagerie of birds trying to catch my eye; woodpigeons, blackbirds, and a particularly plucky starling. Just as I was admiring his beautiful plumage, he tried his luck and flew up, snatching a loose prawn from my sandwich. Before I’d even blinked it was down the hatch, leaving a smattering of mayonnaise on his bill. I doubted he’d been introduced to seafood before, and began to worry how he’d digest it. Then I remembered that the starling had in fact stolen from me, and I knew the resilience of urban birds was quite astonishing. The starling perched on the wall behind me, burbling for a while with head twitches this way and that. I finished the rest of my lunch in peace and he heartlessly left.


After a loop of the zoo, I headed back into town. A man sat playing the accordion with a huge and very contagious smile plastered across his face. Opposite him was another man selling the Big Issue, rather begrudgingly wearing a Santa hat. Lights led the way up Queen’s Road, with shoppers dashing around laden down with bags.

It was undoubtedly winter. There was a chill that tightened my lungs when I gulped the air and my ears were moaning, wondering where my hat was. It had been consistently cold all week and there was a definite hint of trepidation in the air. Snow was waiting in the wings, I was sure of it.

When I reached the museum there was a Pliosaurus waiting for me; a large, blue poster flapping seductively. I couldn’t resist and hurried in. Meandering through an army of taxidermy, I gazed at okapi, kakapo and kingfishers, as well as a sea of dinosaur bones that included miniscule prehistoric teeth laid out in perfect rows. There was also Bristol’s very own dinosaur, Thecodontosaurus, which stood no taller than a Labrador but roamed a tropical habitat during the late Triassic period, 210 million years ago.

After a slice of bakewell cake in the café and customary browse through the shop, I headed back out into the quickly darkening afternoon. As I was trying to make my neck as short as possible in the biting air, my eye caught on £3 bookshop and I veered sharply to the left without a moment’s hesitation. Bristol was amazing! Every wall was lined with books, every one brand new and three pounds or cheaper. I purchased a copy of Moby Dick, but had a sneaking suspicion I’d be back before next week was up.

The Whale and the Freezer

Here’s another article I wrote during my time interning at Student and Graduate Publishing. My colleagues were so interested in the whale project at Tullie House that they asked me to write a piece on my volunteering experience. 

I’ve just finished my second year studying Wildlife Media. It’s really quite a niche course and when I tell people about it I get a mix of surprise, curiosity and almost every time I’m asked if I’ll be the next Attenborough.

A career in wildlife media is seriously competitive, making work experience essential. If you’re interested in nature and conservation take a look at Conservation Careers for inspiration. A lot of wildlife-related opportunities aren’t paid, due to the charitable organisations offering them, so my first two years have been full of volunteering. The thing with volunteering is you never know what to expect, and my experiences have proven that anything can happen.

I’d probably say one of my volunteering highlights this year was cleaning whale bones, something I never thought I’d say. Back in 2014, a massive whale skeleton was found on a beach in Cumbria and taken in by the local museum. I joined forces with two of my course mates to take on the behemoth. There was flesh hanging off the bones and they smelt nothing short of pungent. Donning our glamorous all-in-one suits, wellies and goggles, we got to work scrubbing the bones clean.

Nearly half a year later, after three hours a week of funky odours and a ridiculous amount of disposable gloves, we said our farewells to the whale, who we’d both grown very attached to. The bones have been sent off for industrial cleaning, and will then be hung up in all their glory in the museum atrium. Have a read of the full story.

That wasn’t the end of my antics at the museum, however. A week after the whale left us, we began a new project: the freezer. Deep in the basement of the museum – think restricted section of the Hogwarts library – are all kinds of treasures, some beautiful and others less so. There’s a freezer containing several hundred frozen specimens, from bats that could hide in your palm to far larger animals like otters and barn owls. It was our job to work through the freezer and document the name, date, locality and donor of every specimen to put them all on a database.

A lot of people would feel quite queasy at the thought of handling frozen dead animals, the majority of which were roadkill and had seen far better days. Luckily, or perhaps tragically, my friend and I couldn’t get enough of it. I have a particular obsession with British birds, so getting to see hawfinches, bullfinches and waxwings up close was a real privilege. And not just birds: one week we found a large bin bag containing the very rare and elusive blue mink, a member of the mustelid family with otters, stoats and weasels.

In fact, my friend and I were both quite sad when we reached the bottom of the freezer. Although it was a real shame that the animals had arrived at the museum in freezer bags, it was incredible to see all those birds, mammals and a few reptiles far closer than we ever could in the wild. It gave me an even greater appreciation of wildlife and provided an unforgettable experience that’s a great story to tell.

Whale Bones and Walking Stones

As usual, I trundled to Tullie House Museum for my weekly volunteer shift. Right now everything is focussed on the whale project. Following the discovery of a 16m fin whale skeleton on a beach in Cumbria, Tullie House now has the makings of a smart new welcome feature in their entrance hall. The bones are being taken away for professional cleaning in less than a month now. There’s still a lot to be done before that happens, so it’s all systems go!

Today I was joined by a new volunteer called Will, who turned out to be a fascinating character. As we set to work on scrubbing dried whale flesh off vertebrae the size of my hips, we got chatting about wildlife. Turns out, he’d travelled to some stunning places for expeditions, something I was incredibly jealous of. One one expedition in Abu Dhabi, he had the chance to excavate fossilised camel skeletons as part of his master’s degree in zoo archeology. Once they reached the ribs, the guide assured them there would be nothing of interest to investigate. Will decided to convince him otherwise and together they found an ancient spearhead embedded in the bone. The small discovery prompted a thousand questions: who killed this camel? For what reason? It was fascinating.

Soon, Will is heading off the to the Far East, but he’s done a lot of work in East Greenland. Highlights from his trips here included a sighting of a polar bear jumping through an enlarged seal breathing hole and into the ocean below, and a herd of very intimidating musk oxen, as well as polar wolves, snow white relatives of the grey wolf. On one encounter, Will’s team heard a distressed ringed plover and glanced out the window of their lodgings to see an arctic wolf mere feet away.

As amazing as these stories were to hear (as I sat on the floor scraping white fat off whale bones), my favourite was the tale of the walking stones. Will described how, when rocks fall onto a glacier, they create a natural phenomenon. While the ice around the rock melts under the sun, the patch directly beneath it is kept sheltered. After many hours, the rock is “lifted” by its ice pedestal as the rest of the glacier melts away. Soon though, even the elevated platform succumbs to the sun’s heat and the rock falls onto a patch below, beginning the whole process again. The result is a very slow game of slinky, but one that fills me with such joy that nature is so beautifully playful.

Cleaning The Whale

I’ve been volunteering at Tullie House Museum, Carlisle, for a few weeks now. My role involves documenting the prehistoric specimens in the stock room, including their age and locality. Eventually, I’ll be photographing the specimens and logging each one onto a database.

My work has now been put on hold for a few weeks, having been temporarily replaced by something even more exciting. The museum has acquired a near complete sei whale skeleton, which will be put up on display some time next year. The whale was discovered in October 2014 near Drigg in West Cumbria, stranded on a beach.

Yesterday I was involved in cleaning the whale bones. They’d been buried with manure for a year to decompose, so were all caked in soil and sand. Myself and two other volunteers – who happened to be two of my fellow Wildlife Media students – got to work scrubbing the bones clean. First, we hosed them down to soften the soil. Then we used soft brushes to gently remove the residue and expose the bone beneath. In three hours, we managed to get through all the vertebrae.


The image above is of plates that should have been fused to the vertebrae – this leads the curator of natural sciences, Simon Jackson, to believe that the whale was an undeveloped juvenile. However, they can’t say with confidence which gender the animal was.


Here are the ribs, each nearly as tall as me! Although a juvenile, the whale was approximately fourteen metres in length.

Luckily the weather was fantastic, so once we’d cleaned the bones we could lay them out to dry in the sun. With the dirt washed away, they looked amazing. Being photographers, we couldn’t help snapping away. When I came to uni I never thought I’d say I’ve helped clean part of a whale skeleton. This is just another of the fantastic experiences I’ve had in my first year alone.

After we’ve finished our lengthy but rewarding job the bones will need to be treated, to remove the oils that give them an orange colour. Then they’ll be ready to be put together and displayed in the museum atrium. Here’s hoping the whale will give Tullie House well deserved promotion – Dippy the Diplodocus may have some competition!