And still they come!

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The Lizard, Cornwall. WikiCommons

Cornwall’s currently overrun with tourists, or so the county’s official Tourist Board tells us. If you are down there right now, crushed between other curious holiday-makers, we can only thank you for choosing somewhere to go for your holidays which is at the other extreme of the country from us, up here in the far north east.  Folk are apparently flocking in unsustainable numbers to the extreme south west of England drawn by their obsession to see the very spots on the Lizard where Poldark, the country’s favourite screen adaptation, is set but not exclusively filmed. The fourth, most recent, series has just finished on BBC1, but there are five more novels to adapt, so plenty more opportunity awaits for even more to get caught up in the Cornwall craze. Well, locals of the Lizard, you have our sympathies though, to put it bluntly, you are doing us a favour by focusing the nation’s collective imagination for a few years. Recent newspapers have been full of articles lately detailing the strains placed on the infrastructure of Cornwall by the seasonal influx – water shortages, intensely crowded beaches, bulging litter bins, non-existent parking spaces, over-inflated house prices and ironic dismay over the tourist board’s call to bring visitors to the county.  We know what you mean!

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Daily pooh removed by us: one dog’s holiday

Imagine, therefore, our dismay and incredulous amusement when on what was intended as a comic pitch from alternative destinations, on yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 lunchtime news programme, World at One, we heard a spokesperson for Visit Northumberland plugging the beauty of Bamburgh and the sea trips to the Farnes. Oh no, we cried! As though we need any more visitors! Northumberland long ago lost the right to be known as the ‘Secret Kingdom’ or ‘England’s Most Tranquil County’, in large measure thanks to Robson Green and the television programmes which bruited the quiet joys of this historic and magnificent coastline, bringing in tourists in unprecedented numbers and obliterating the off-season more or less entirely.

The problems resulting for a tiny resident community with only a handful of litter bins and one daily collection from them,  two small car parks, a narrow main drag along one side of which drivers still park, despite double yellow lines, and too many selfish holiday makers who take what they want without thinking, are obvious. The detritus on the beach, the out-of-control dogs, careering madly about in an environment most of them are entirely unused to, creating stress for local dogs and their owners alike, the sheer weight of numbers making every instance of anti-social behaviour seem that much worse. We know what it is to be outnumbered; to be treated like a theme park, into and out of which people can drop as their fancy takes them. Sure, some locals make easy money from renting out family property but most have to work tirelessly for longer and longer in keen competition with each other just to make a living, putting out more and more as the visitors’ demands and expectations become ever greater.

We are currently waiting for the day soon when the Scots to go back to school, the first lessening of the tourist load; then the British children begin their academic year. But, most families busy elsewhere, September heralds the influx of older walkers and retired visitors, plus more divers and groups of various sorts. It never stops, and neither does the bagging and/or picking up of other people’s dogs’ pooh, plastic rubbish, barbecues, clothes and tents. So if you fancy swelling the crowds on the Lizard’s beaches, please be our guest; you will find the locations usefully listed here:

https://www.visitcornwall.com/poldark/blog/poldark-film-locations

But you can look up Northumberland for yourself!

 

 

 

Dog days?

20180715_092554Jeoffry’s hut, as it is called, has really come into its own lately. During the last few weeks of sweltering heat I have taken myself inside, rearranged the bedding and made myself a nest, much to the consternation of all. I don’t know which was worse: the unremitting intensity of the sun – something to which none of us up here is accustomed – or being forced reluctantly to accept that we simply would have to take notice of what the England team was up to in the 2018 World Cup! For, amazingly, England’s young team astounded us all with their achievements and, as always, the media’s attentions swerved from initial cynicism to unrealistic expectation in double-quick time. No one could ever have predicted we would come fourth, and that one of ours would win the Golden Boot. As a great believer in the power of the ball to bring folk together, I can only applaud. But the summer temperatures have been a trial for us all and, despite the fun provided by young Nico’s apple-shaped paddling pool, we Dickens Dogs are glad that at last things are beginning to cool down. Today we even had some much-needed rain.

DSCF1049But dogs want to keep going, their routines uninterrupted, no matter how hot it gets, so it takes loving owners to intervene and make sensible choices on our behalf; to allow us our fun, but prevent us from hurting ourselves. On a very hot Sunday, when we thought the event might be called off because of the heat wave, Nico’s sister Tiggy still enjoyed winning the Weiner Race during the Dachshund Walk and Fun Day at Musselburgh Racecourse. Astonished to find she was allowed to chase something for once – a fake squirrel  – she blew the opposition out of the park.  Afterwards, though, she was showered with cool water and she and Freddie left soon afterwards, as the heat intensified, her prize left unclaimed. Better safe than sorry. Yet still we hear every day about dogs dying locked in parked, airless cars in soaring temperatures while their wanton owners idle in the shops, ignorant or careless of their fates, whatever is more reprehensible.

IMG_20180715_153315This week we also caught sight of our new friend, Honey, the Shar-Pei pup, who has arrived in the family of our old friend Bailey, who died earlier in the year. Being only three months old, she needs her final inoculation and another week before we get to greet her properly; we only saw her through our car window very early one morning, taking in the cool sea air and the magic of her new environment. She was like a kind of exotic piglet, with tiny, trotty feet.

Molly and Annie on B's 8th birthday
Annie and her daughter Molly on her and Barnaby’s 8th birthday

And now to something sad but also something wonderful. We heard this week that Annie, Barnaby’s wonderful mother, had died, having never properly recovered from the removal of a mammary tumour. In her first litter, from which Barnaby came, there were ten puppies, including the inscrutable Scriggins (whatever became of him, destined as he was for an older couple?) and Molly, who was chosen for future breeding and thus remained with her mother and the older girls who now, one by one, have trundled over the rainbow bridge, over the years. All have gone except Rosie, who was only a puppy herself when Barnaby and Molly were born.

 

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Annie and Wren, now Mummy Tilldawn’s shadow

Now these two Tilldawn-bred girls alone remain with their inestimable Mummy, whom we all love and respect so much for the care and intelligence she has brought to her decades of breeding such gloriously well-adjusted Golden Retrievers. Though she must indeed have thought her puppy days were over, Uncle Johnny was looking out for her as, not long before Annie died came Wren, a Goldie-cross with a long story behind her. Annie’s last few months were distinguished by providing little Wren with the loving mother she never had and now she grows apace, happy and well-adjusted in her warm and loving new home, with her adoptive sisters, Rosie and Molly. It just goes to show, as someone famous once said, ‘Thou met’st with things dying, I with things newborn’.

Here’s fine rosemary, sage and thyme

20180601_154129‘The trees are coming into leaf/ Like something almost being said’. So wrote Philip Larkin, and it was with those thoughts in mind that we recently pondered the bursting-forth of one green after another, within our little garden, this belated spring. Oak, sweet chestnut, yew and crab-apple took precedence, for once, over the feathered members of our family we fuss over more, and  foreground every day. We shall return to them, and their dramas, soon enough. But, for now, let us record the utterly serendipitous discovery of bee hives and wild flowers beneath the old Roman walls, viewed recently in the City London. History of Roman occupation, urban development and the destruction caused by the Blitz are elegantly brought to life along Noble Street with creative signage along a walk way from 20180601_153923which one can gaze down upon a colourful and verdant meadow just feet below busy offices, where movers and shakers go about their days. The exposed stones placed there by the invaders in the first century, only properly revealed when subsequent building was obliterated by German bombs, provide the aliums and ferns with warmth and cover, making a magical under-croft beneath the City workers’ feet.

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20180601_161350So much about the City, and its immediate environs to the east, is full of wonder. In a courtyard garden, nestling alongside the old graveyard of Hawksmoor’s St George-in-the-East, a stone’s throw from the Thames in Shadwell, was born a male fox who has lived his entire life there, resuming his daily rest on the corrugated roof over the patio every day, once his nightly peregrinations are done. 20180603_155225Fearless, confrontational even, all day he takes his ease, dozing among the plants, looking up on those rare occasions when he senses a stranger has noticed him, but otherwise unfazed by human activity, particularly those who have known him since he was but a cub, presented to them like a prize in his mother’s mouth. He has never come to harm here and, please God, he never will. Come winter, he wanders off now and then and shelters somewhere secret, returning after particularly icy spells to the place that he calls home. In the same way does London draw all Londoners; those who recognise and cherish its enduring and surprising power to inspire. They will cling to it like ivy, along those Roman walls.

 

In and out the garden

20180531_161831As we write this, the sparrows outside the spare bedroom window are shouting away, full of beans, their home in the martins’ nest alive with the sound of babies and their proud parents’ calls. At last, after the most protracted and disconcerting few months of uncertainty, things have settled down and all the creatures are getting on with life. Everything seems to have been compressed into the last few weeks but having said that, even now – ten days into June – our new oak has only recently come into leaf, the last of our trees to feel secure enough about sunlight and warmth to begin to burgeon forth. 20180512_072525After a good fifteen years of development, first in a planter at the other end of the country, latterly facing south in the garden soil not far from Uncle Johnny’s grave, the wonderful wisteria has relaxed and, in a minor way, let rip, several floral cascades complementing its lush foliage.

The two nearby firs have responded with bright green tips all over and, along from them, the Huw the Yew, planted just before the ‘Beast from the East’ hit everything for six, seems optimistic in its new growth. They say that yew trees flourish where good things thrive, so let us pray for this one’s continued health. No sooner was it in the ground when the snow fell and clung to its cold feet for days on end, apparently doing it no harm other than a bit of brown. These are trees that have seen everything, having endured as individuals often for many centuries, reputedly a thousand. It is humbling to plant a mature specimen and hope that it will honour us with its mysterious gaze for many many years. Perhaps most of all, because we ourselves will not be here to see it.

20180512_072636.jpgEven the humble bay, long one of us and also previously for many years in a planter, has never looked anything as glorious as it did when this spring finally arrived. Imperfectly cropped into a vague ball-shape over the years, its thick, dark green leaves generated lovely bunches of creamy, fragrant blossoms in which it was completely covered.  Ours is essentially a green garden, probably with more than forty shades as well. Looking across the range, you notice especially the sharp lime-yellow of the maple, nestling near the Lincoln-green of the hazel – both big trees now, after several years left to their own devices – and, in between them, the motley holly, which breathes better in the winter when the other two are asleep.

20180512_072441Near the oak, Johnny-Crab-Apple produced a promising crop of blossom in this his first season with us, presaging a little harvest for later in the year. The sweet chestnut has also grown well since being planted last autumn. Lots of new trees; lots of new greens: acts of faith, for the long-term pleasure of man and beast alike. The spiders, beetles, mice, frogs, toads and birds of all kinds speak the language of these (to them) leafy labyrinths and find under and about and within them the wherewithal to sustain their lives. In the black elder, our beloved collared dove has at last settled on her spindly nest of twigs to warm her new-laid eggs. She is patient and trusting, never moving when we stand beneath and talk to her. She knows what she does. And what we mean. The noisy sparrow children will soon fledge and, we hope, feeling secure about the plenty surrounding them, their parents will sit tight and start another family. The more, the merrier.

The end of the beginning?

20180508_150721‘Now is the month of May-ing’ . . .

. . . and – at long, long last – as if by magic, the wintry scene has shifted, the sky has cleared, the wind dropped, the sun is out and all natural things are on the move.  All this time, as we mourned the loss of light and life, the divinity which shapes our ends has been quietly at work and with this weekend’s gloriously hot weather, which curiously coincided with a national holiday, the fruits of those labours were gloriously made manifest.

Only last week migrant birds were still a rarity:  since sighting the first few sand martins in mid-April, the rest of the usual crowd were nowhere to be seen as we looked up day by day towards their nest holes in the dunes, entrances now obscured by the winter storms.  Only last Friday, there were but four pairs of house martins at Bamburgh dunes and none had flown over our house. Though the church swallows had safely returned to their roost inside the porch of St Aidan’s in Bamburgh, across the fields generally the usual laughter was missing. Such a long-delayed Spring made everyone sad and sorry. Every day for the last 20180430_070254month we have carefully checked the natterjack toad pool for signs of spawning, and every day we found nothing except a dead adult male a couple of weeks ago; and so we passed on and waited. Instead, the beach was strewn with plastic detritus and dead creatures, like this poor dolphin, washed up having half-delivered its calf – an eloquent image of time out of joint. Thus it was that April passed into May, and nothing much changed, except the daily to and fro of rain and chill and mist and murk.

20180508_064739But, at last, the Spring ‘clad all in gladness’ has indeed burst upon us and ours are the riches. As if by magic, the brackish toad pool was early this morning chock full of tadpoles and by the afternoon the sky above the dunes swirled with an ever-increasing number of martins, feeding furiously and staking their claim on last year’s mud nests under the sewage works eaves. Our faith is awakened: no matter how dreary our routine seemed, Spring has indeed banished Winter’s sadness and, even though we know the clouds will gather and the showers intervene, for all things must pass, there’s no denying this tremendous step-change in the seasons. No matter how transient life’s joys, it is in recognizing them that we are blessedly human, as Touchstone knows and Jacques cannot admit. Indeed, this is a moment for unalloyed celebration, an As You Like It moment, and here expressed so simply and so optimistically, with music by Thomas Morley, in Shakespeare’s song from that glorious pastoral comedy. Sweet indeed are the uses of adversity:

 

 

 

 

Stranglers on the shore

20180404_070742The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men.

T S Eliot makes it sound so beautiful, and so poignant, here by the relentless sea. Indeed it is but, increasingly, it is more than a repository of discarded and lost fishing tackle with a tale to tell: it is a world of plastic and the enduring legacy of umpteen needless purchases which have woven themselves into our environment, abusing it and threatening the wildlife in myriad ways.

20180329_071300Recent reports came in from the National Trust warden on the Isle of May about spotting near the coast a seal enmeshed in rope. It is not surprising at all. More extraordinary is that we see so few of the effects of the polluted sea upon the creatures within it, caught up in the twine and the balloon ribbons, choked by the plastic toys, applicators and multi-coloured nurdles.  For we, who are among the first on the shore each day, witness an ever-increasing quantity and range of stuff cast up along the shore. We are no longer surprised by what we find. Sad to say, dead guillemots defeated by the recent storms seem normal and utterly acceptable by comparison.

20180404_071211Some jetsam is more troubling than other stuff and the sheer20180404_070917 variety can be utterly baffling. Recently a shipment of fine wooden planks was cast up on the north east and Scottish coast; this chemical toilet probably came from a boat, and we took it for a boiler cover until we gained a closer look. Nothing would surprise us.

20180401_072118However, the shipwrecked oddities which once had meaning and real purpose in everyday life are part and parcel of the big weather events, are to some extent expected and, of course, are usually easily removed. Not so the blanket of plastic rubbish of all kinds which is simply enmeshed in the seaweed and dune grass. The rubbish is ubiquitous and the task of eliminating it as a threat both to wildlife and the aesthetic enjoyment of our coast is obviously Sisyphean. Several of the morning dog walkers routinely collect what they can, bringing bags for the purpose as their dogs gambol and amuse themselves nearby. It is, of course, a hopeless task but as they say, every little helps. And today, reports in the Times suggest that since the charge on single-use plastic bags was levied in British shops, there are indeed fewer in the sea around us.

Now that the holiday season is about to begin, to what there is already will be added the additional throw-aways of the tourists: the barbecues, the full nappies, the plastic water bottles, the buckets and spades, the bags full of dog pooh – so carelessly discarded. After the BBC broadcast David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II this winter, the population of these islands responded with horror when they saw the effect of plastics in the world’s oceans. Perhaps the corner is beginning to be turned. Let us hope that what we undertake really does begin to make a difference.

To learn more about nurdles, go to: https://www.nurdlehunt.org.uk/

To read about the Isle of May in David Steel’s blog, go to: https://isleofmaynnr.wordpress.com/author/davidsteel2015/

 

 

‘Dr Watts, of course!’

99px-Isaac_Watts_from_NPGWhen asked about unjustly neglected novels, we have no hesitation in answering Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett, first published in 1910. Hugely prolific, the once popular chronicler of Staffordshire’s Potteries –  the Five Towns – Arnold Bennett’s reputation and fame have declined since his zenith in the early twentieth century for a variety of reasons, one simply being that he wrote enthralling narratives about ordinary people’s lives. Perhaps he is just thought too accessible for modern literary circles. He nevertheless remains one of the most acute readers of the human psyche and the Clayhanger trilogy shows him at his best: recording thwarted human ambition, the prickliness of finding love and the dreariness and responsibilities of work. Its characters are complex and their tribulations, particularly their interior ones, utterly real.

One of Bennett’s most perceptive and moving scenes has direct relevance to today, which is Good Friday in the western church, though the scene itself takes place on a gloriously hot day, the characters sweltering under their layers of Edwardian clothing, as the little Potteries town comes together in carnival atmosphere to celebrate the centenary of founding the Methodist Sunday School. Edwin Clayhanger, the young hero of the trilogy, now a successful businessman –  but in the family printing business he was obliged to join by his overbearing and domineering father – is in love with Hilda Lessways, the mysterious independent thinker to whom he is tentatively drawing closer both intellectually and emotionally. This day proves an education for Edwin, and for the reader, though for different reasons. Thrilled to be in her company, Edwin’s mixture of insecurity and growing poise are powerfully evoked as Hilda and he are subsumed within the distasteful sentimentality all human beings will recognise from their own experiences of mass hysteria on such occasions.

To the heat of the sun, and the massing of the crowds and the various brass bands, with their banners and dignitaries, are added one by one the hymns – as Bennett puts it in an aside, ‘None but the classical lyrics of British Christianity had found a place in the programme of the great day’ – each refulgent with references to the blood of the Paschal lamb. Emboldened by Hilda’s sophistication, worldliness and religious scepticism, Edwin – who knows every line and the implication of every line – contemplates the contrast between these outpourings of communal certainty and the fate of those across the world served by missionary zeal, and his own agnosticism, to him the mark of a man of the world. Hearing the words ‘Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood’:

A phrase in the speech loosed some catch in him and he turned suddenly to Hilda, and in an intimate half-whisper murmured—

“More blood!”

“What?” she harshly questioned. But he knew that she understood.

“Well,” he said audaciously, “look at it! It only wants the Ganges at the bottom of the Square!”

No one heard save she. But she put her hand on his arm protestingly. “Even if we don’t believe,” said she— not harshly, but imploringly, “we needn’t make fun.”

“We don’t believe!” And that new tone of entreaty! She had comprehended without explanation. She was a weird woman. Was there another creature, male or female, to whom he would have dared to say what he had said to her? He had chosen to
say it to her because he despised her, because he wished to trample on her feelings. She roused the brute in him, and perhaps no one was more astonished than himself to witness
the brute stirring. Imagine saying to the gentle and sensitive Janet: “It only wants the Ganges at the bottom of the Square—”.  He could not.

They stood silent, gazing and listening. And the sun went higher in the sky and blazed down more cruelly. And then the speech ended, and the speaker wiped his head with an enormous
handkerchief. And the multitude, led by the brazen instruments, which in a moment it overpowered, was singing to a solemn air-  

‘When I survey the wondrous cross

‘On which the Prince of Glory died

‘My richest gain I count but loss

‘And pour contempt on all my pride.’

Hilda shook her head.

“What’s the matter?” he asked, leaning towards her from his barrel.

“That’s the most splendid religious verse ever written!” she said passionately. “You can say what you like. It’s worth while believing anything, if you can sing words like that and mean
them!” She had an air of restrained fury. But fancy exciting herself over a hymn!

“Yes, it is fine, that is!” he agreed.

“Do you know who wrote it?” she demanded menacingly.

“I’m afraid I don’t remember,” he said. The hymn was one of his earliest recollections, but it had never occurred to him to be curious as to its authorship.

Her lips sneered. “Dr Watts, of course!” she snapped.

He could hear her, beneath the tremendous chanting from the Square, repeating the words to herself with her precise and impressive articulation.

Monument_To_Isaac_Watts,_East_EnclosureAnd so that chapter ends but treat yourself and read the whole novel and think about Bennett’s accomplishment in this scene for yourself. Dr Watts, with whose name we perhaps should all be familiar, is buried in Bunhill Fields, near Old Street in the City of London, the non-Conformist cemetery which is also home to John Bunyan and William Blake.

His greatest hymn will be sung throughout the world today. Here it is sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.