Nature Spots in Aberdeen

The following article was featured in my latest issue of On The Wing magazine, which you can read here. I often see Aberdeen unfairly shrugged off as simply ‘The Granite City’. As with many urban places, there’s so much more to Aberdeen than grey buildings. Here are six of my favourite spots for nature enthusiasts to explore.

Tollohill Wood

With its deep rocky dells and hip-high bracken, this is what I call a Jurassic forest because it doesn’t take much imagination to picture a dinosaur poking above the foliage. Beeches, birches and rowans line interweaving trails – look out for a Neolithic cairn and a stone monument hidden among the trees.

W3W: flute.saying.plans

Hazlehead Park

Like in all good parks, kids and dogs have open space to run around, but away from the play park area you can sit in a variety of gardens and hear nothing but birdsong. You can also explore Robert the Bruce stone cairns, a sculpture trail and Scotland’s oldest maze here.

Hazlehead Avenue, AB15 8BE

David Welch Winter Gardens

Within Duthie Park, this warren of greenhouses contains tropical flowers, roses, ferns and a squadron of carnivorous plants. I spent an unholy amount of time in the Arid House, where there’s every sort of cactus you could imagine. With more than 750 species, this collection is one of the largest in the UK.

Polmuir Road, AB11 7TH

Open: daily all year round

Entry: free

Greyhope Bay

This small headland forms a curved dell just past Aberdeen’s harbour. A range of seabirds gather in the shallows by the rocks and it’s a great spot to see bottlenose dolphins too. Watch in cosy comfort from the excellent Liberty Café, located within the historic structure of Torry Battery.

Greyhope Road, AB11 8QX

Seaton Park

Sitting beside a dangling loop of the River Don, this is the largest green space in Old Aberdeen. Splashes of colour from dramatic flowerbeds, a high quality river footpath leading to a pedestrianised arched bridge, and several concealed features of historical interest make this more intriguing than your average park.

Don Street, AB24 1XS

University of Aberdeen Zoology Museum

Scales and fur and feathers oh my! The lower gallery’s skeletons draw the eye first, but also make sure to check out minuscule amphibian bones, corals and a troupe of fish you wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley. The upper gallery is an ornithologist’s delight, featuring everything from goldcrests to golden eagles.

Tillydrone Avenue, AB24 2TZ

Open: 10.00–16.00 Mon–Fri

Entry: free

All of these fab spots are featured in my upcoming Slow Travel Guide to North East Scotland: Aberdeenshire, Moray and the Cairngorms National Park. This will be published by Bradt Travel Guides in May.

Reptiles in the Park

I bought a ticket for the Madrid City Bus Tour from hotel reception and hopped on at Plaza Mayor. With such intense heat, I thought it would be a good idea to explore the city in the comfort of an open-top bus, where I could jump on and off wherever I pleased. First stop was Puerta del Sol with the bear and strawberry tree statue, and then we headed east into the Retiro district, which was probably best known for its trio of world-famous museums. As I’d anticipated, the queues to get inside were eye-watering even at late morning, so once again I was content just admiring the exterior. As much as I quite liked wandering through art galleries, I wasn’t willing to spend an hour waiting to get in. Besides, on a weekend day you wouldn’t have seen the art for the tourists anyway.


I was far more interested in what lay beside the museums and I hopped off the bus. El Parque de Buen Retiro was a vast and beautiful park spanning 350 acres. I began at the north end and made my way leisurely past elaborate fountains and sprawling trees. One of the trees was the oldest in Madrid, but there was no shortage of vast leaved giants, which provided much-needed shade for tourists and locals alike. While some people were lolling on the grass with food or books, others were jogging and walking dogs. It was a hive of activity and yet seemed extremely tranquil, similar to how I felt in Plaza Mayor. Despite a population of several million, the city didn’t feel cramped or overcrowded the way London does. The pace of life in Madrid was far more relaxed and I was keen to savour it. The only signs of congestion were from the parakeets perched in every treetop, whose disgruntled calls sounded like trainers on a squeaky floor.


In almost the very centre of the park was El Palacio Cristal – a beautiful glass building overlooking a lake where ducks and a lone black swan were swimming in lazy circles. Surrounding the water were dramatic sprays of white blooms, rosebushes as tall as trees and a miniature waterfall cascading over a rocky outcrop into the lake below. I sat down on the stone steps of the palace to see the ducks a little closer and was surprised to find the water full of tiny terrapins. While their shells remained submerged, their black and yellow-striped heads poked out of the water, eyes blinking up at the child beside me who was throwing popcorn. On the steps, feral pigeons and sparrows tussled for the prizes, while in the water the terrapins were joined by ducks and the occasional gaping lips of a fish. The black swan came gliding over for a look too.


One terrapin made the monumental effort of grasping the side with its broad claws and heaving itself up. For a few surreal moments we gazed at each other before it realised I wasn’t the one with food and plopped back underwater. Meanwhile, a pigeon strolled nonchalantly across my foot in pursuit of an unclaimed kernel, while others exploded into flight around my head, their wing beats sending a welcome burst of fresh air.

Terrapin v pigeon face-off!

Beside me on the step I could hear the child with the popcorn munching. “One for you, one for me” was obviously in play. When the bag was empty, birds and reptiles slowly dissipated until the next snack arrived.

I wanted to sit and watch the terrapins a bit longer, but the steps were in direct sunlight and I was beginning to fry. I left the diverse gaggle of creatures behind and headed out of the park, but not before passing through La Rosaleda (rose garden) for a few photos. A dozen other young female tourists were posing for shots, no doubt gathering new ammunition for Instagram.

La Rosaleda

All along the downward slope leading back to the museums were small wooden huts overflowing with books, which I made a beeline for. It was La Cuesta de Claudio Moyano bookstalls. Nearly all were in Spanish but there were a couple of titles I recognised. I couldn’t help buying “Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal”, which would probably be challenging enough for my rusty Spanish.

For lunch I had a bocadillo de calamari (squid ring sandwich) from El Brillante – another Lonely Planet recommendation that fell short of the mark for me. The calamari itself was good, with just a thin layer of batter, but when sandwiched in a dry baguette it had me gasping for a drink. It seemed that the Spanish didn’t use sauces much in their cooking. The bacon bits and bare bread at Casa Revuelta had been the same. Perhaps the locals just washed it all down with a few cervezas, but I was left wanting after El Brillante.

Gran Vía

Later in the evening, after a full circuit on the bus and hopping off on Gran Vía, the hub of central Madrid, I walked back towards Plaza Mayor and a sign for “Tapa Tapa” caught my eye. I ignored the guidebooks and had dinner in a place I knew nothing about, which was an excellent decision. I chose four cheese croquettes, mini portions of Iberian ham and mozzarella toasted sandwiches and langoustine skewers, which were all absolutely delicious. To drink I had a mocktail called San Francisco, which was bursting with the flavours of orange, peach, pineapple and blackcurrant juices. It was an extremely satisfying end to a long day exploring the park. Tomorrow I had a real Madrid tradition to look forward to: the infamous El Rastro flea market.

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.

Dear Old Ed

I was lucky to find myself in beautiful, beautiful Edinburgh again this weekend, a city I would happily spend every weekend in. As I emerged from Edinburgh Waverley onto Princes Street I was filled with the usual excitement that comes with arriving into Scotland’s capital. Immediately we headed to the City Cafe just off the Royal Mile, our new favourite food haunt. I gorged on scrumptious ribs and sweet potato fries, which refuelled me nicely after the train journey.


Deep down I felt embarrassed looking like the most obvious tourist in the world as I clutched my camera and shivered in what I thought was cold weather. I’ve been to Edinburgh many times, but it still feels new on every visit. There’s always a shop I hadn’t been in or a beautiful building I haven’t gazed up at. I’ll never take this city for granted, so will never tire of photographing it.


As usual the streets were buzzing with noise; bustling shoppers and laughter spilling from the nearby pubs, all accompanied by the steady hum of bagpipes. I’ve asked multiple Scots if they ever get bored of hearing the bagpipes and they’ve all said no. If I were a native I don’t think I would either – the sound reminds me of old holidays and unforgettable days out.



All too soon it was morning again and time to get the train home. My weekend visit was only fleeting, though I’m sure a month-long stay would have felt just as brief. Here’s to the next excuse I get to pay a visit!