Castles in the sand

20170815_060754A simple sight to record today:  nothing more. A bevy of beautiful castles greeted us on Bamburgh beach this sunny morning at six. Untouched by the tide, so high and so difficult to negotiate for the last few days, these lovely creations are a credit to a particularly British habit of holiday competitiveness. King Oswald’s fortress smiled above them, benignly.

20170815_063233It is one of those days when the best came early. Bright sunshine, an empty beach – only two ‘people’ and Jackie seen on our run – no dogs; fantastic fun. We even saw our first curlew –  though failed to capture it clearly on this photo – newly returned from the high ground inland, ready to reclaim the beach for the winter months. August is indeed weary. When we spotted him, he was silhouetted against the sea, at the edge of the rocks and he is still there – somewhere, like Oswald, whose feast day we recently celebrated.

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Once by men and angels

20170801_061033Yesterday morning – and a damp and increasingly unpleasant morning it was –  we found a new best thing on the beach. There it lay, on the tide-line, no one about the see it and no one had been there before us, only the ancient castle walls which rose up in the distance behind it. We sniffed its well-proportioned body, noting its arrival, but otherwise respectfully moved on without disturbing it or making a fuss. Not since we found the squid some years ago has there been anything like our octopus, a perfect specimen thoughtfully blended into his sandy surroundings. These are the passings that we mourn whenever they are brought to our attention, through tiny windows into a bigger world of creation of  which we are only dimly aware: the great North Sea, with its chilly secrets and quiet deaths. Why this little fellow died and was cast ashore – so perfect and so peerless – remain a mystery, but we are grateful for the joy of coming upon him first and bearing witness to his life.

20170801_0611061.jpgWhereas zoologists celebrate the octopus’ ingenuity and unique intelligence, unfortunately in poetic terms they are more likely to be fodder for the infant, the matter of limericks about multiple legs and arms, seemingly lacking the gravitas of the giant squid, immortalised so powerfully in  Tennyson’s poem. Octopus  – of which of course there are numerous species, ranging from tiny to terrible – live for only a couple of years at most and as incarceration in an aquarium is stressful and life-shortening they aren’t readily found in them, though Brighton Aquarium once was graced by the presence of a lovely Giant Pacific Octopus of considerable distinction. Kemo Sabe will always recall the moment in the darkness when, eyes adjusting to the light, she became aware of the presence of this eminence grise in what had previously appeared to be empty tank. Like some alien balloon, adhering to the back wall of its glass home, it seemed reluctant to relax in its surroundings, pondering on the loss of the serendipity in the open sea. Lowering, yet endearing, in its kittenish vulnerability, it has stuck with us, as it were. Our Brighton friend’s time is long up by now, of course, as has that of the little one we chanced upon who, like the kraken, once by men and angels to be seen,/ In roaring . . . shall rise and on the surface die. Though there would have been no roaring at his demise, there did come the moment when mutability was insufficient and all else failed. And thus we found him, first along the shore.

‘No beautiful thing lasts . . .’

20160914_165238Carl Sandburg was right. Just look at it today!  To the left of these trees, Bamburgh Castle lies atop the Whin Sill wreathed in sea mist. Ever since dawn we have struggled to see familiar landmarks and, as the day dragged on, we saw less and less of the world as we know it, taking on trust what we believe to be there but is now utterly cloaked in murk. It feels miserably damp and chilly, despite it not being that cold. But it is one of those days on which all the landmarks shift and nothing is but what is not. The islands beyond the harbour have disappeared, the sun is resting and most of the seagulls are silent and thoughtful. The sparrows and tits got up late and have retreated to their resting places for most of the day, huddling together wistfully. The contrast with yesterday could simply not be more extreme!

20160914_170107Exciting things continue to occur, though. For the next ten days location filming for one of those big blockbuster films – Transformers: the Dark Knight – is taking place on the beach nobody but us wanted this morning. Just past six today, a crew was laying track and digging out the stream to carry cameras and equipment on to the dunes; wherever are we, the expressions on these men’s faces seemed to say. Around them the fog rolled and thickened.

To 20160914_165845think that one day soon millions  will watch the fruits of their labours on screens across the world; that we’ll be welcoming Anthony Hopkins and Mark Wahlberg to our familiar trundling-ground; that money will be made from making Oswald’s beach a place of action; that celebrity footprints will displace those who have gone before – the saints included – on this historic shore. And that tide after tide will efface them all as time brings in the darkening year. As for us, the closed beach (a first!) means that running towards the rising sun will take less time and, ironically, bring us into the light more quickly. A metamorphosis indeed.

 

Morning and Macbeth

20151031_070119This was what the dawn was doing yesterday morning when we began our day on the beach at half past six. Towering over us, as always, is the great whin sill on which Bamburgh Castle stands, tracing the line of our coast as it has done since long before King Oswald’s time. Then the benevolence of the King of Northumbria, inspired by Saint Aidan and centred on the castle, established the pattern for altruism and philanthropy which continued throughout history (it is not a coincidence that the first volunteer lifeboat crews came from here). As Oswald and the lords of Bamburgh took care of the local sick and fed the local poor – even building a windmill within the walls to ensure the supply of flour – the milk of human kindness nourished both body and soul. It is a good place, whose spirit shines through it.

IMG00362-20140222-0743Last evening, at the screening of Justin Kurzel’s powerful and successful cinema adaptation of Macbeth, local breasts heaved with pride when the familiar silhouette came into focus as Michael Fassbender’s Thane of Cawdor rode to take possession of the throne within what was, for now, Glamis castle, not Bamburgh any more. Great camerawork, vast grey seas and Northumberland’s incredible light banished the good from all scenes shot here and  – as at last we saw it put to use – the chilling scaffold on which the Macduff family were burnt to death completed the transformation of our very familiar fortress into a place of menace: harsh, disturbing and comfortless.

Kurzel perceptively captures the play’s mood and momentum, creating a convincing portrait of a society in which no one is ever safe, or even at rest. But where nothing is permitted to diminish the unrelenting grimness, because we don’t hear enough, or clearly enough, of the light and dark, the good and bad, the attractive and the repulsive,  strangely enough what we lose most of  – now we come to think of it – is a real sense of wickedness; an unnatural world, far, far worse than this.

By contrast, the most haunting and memorable image is the little candle-filled wooden church,  an idea borrowed from the Russian steppe, where waxy lights blaze all around the saintly Duncan and, later, the hallucinating Lady Macbeth. The light pierces the moral darkness, the ever-delayed dawn, as happens when we all run towards the sunrise, sheltered by our beloved castle, every morning.

Be afraid! Be very afraid!

IMG_3309 Nicholas – seen here in his fabulous bat-suit –  is ready for Hallowe’en, the first he has enjoyed with all of us, bearing in mind that he didn’t come to live here until the end of last November, when he was eight weeks old. Everything is new and exciting for him but, for the rest of us, the seasons and their celebrations, secular and even religious, can be dulled by familiarity.  On Hallowe’en itself, for example, we older boys know that the fun and barking must begin as soon as dusk falls, when the very youngest members of our community start calling in their ghostly make-up and masks, their adult minders waiting for them at the end of the drive while they tuck into the sweets doled out at the front door.  I even have a pumpkin suit in which to greet them!

IMG_3283But there is more to this extraordinary time of the year than fun; the time when we indulge these tiny terrors with individual packets of Haribo and spooky lighting. Our young neighbours’ innocent enjoyment of this one night of raiding stands as a kind of ghostly parody of the Viking visitors who centuries ago used to disturb the Northumbrian villagers along this coast on dark nights, bringing real havoc, destruction and fear. So these days when our shores are calm, the seas clear of longboats, and Lindisfarne is at peace, we reach into the collective spiritual memory, where paganism overlaps with the rational, when in truth we cannot escape the fact that all the time the days are shortening, the light diminishing and we are losing our ability to see the difference between what is and what is not.

For however happily we trot along in our regenerated rational world, fingertips from another one constantly reach out to touch us. Only this morning a black cat appeared out of the corner of the eye in one of the bedrooms being cleaned across the road – something we as a family have no problem understanding: in our previous home, everyone was used to the friendly cat which brushed against us in the kitchen; its one-time home remained its home, for ever, and she was happy to share it with Jeoffry.  And as for the footsteps on the gravel . . . Well, more of that another time.

This Saturday, on Hallowe’en itself, the film of Macbeth we saw them making last year on the beach at Bamburgh comes to Seahouses. Well hear lots of ordinary, honest, everyday creatures, domestic and wild, traduced in the Weird Sisters’ revolting and unnatural rhymes – dogs, bats, toads, owls – as the world turns upside-down in Macbeth’s murderous wake. Shakespeare’s imagination will pull down the veil between two worlds in a vision of self-destruction far worse than any modern horror film could devise. Banquo and King Duncan, of course, will remark upon the martins nesting high on the castle wall. And we simple, innocent creatures who make the beach our playground will reflect on how they will return. For we remember how they took down the ugly scaffold once Michael Fassbender had ridden away, leaving the ramparts – and the time –  free. Exciting times, then, not routine at all, once you ponder on them, Pip. Now where is my pumpkin suit?

Beowulf on the beach

June 2010 180By nightfall yesterday, glorious sunshine had given way to thick mists, encroaching deep inland from their watery origins. By morning, everywhere was swathed in wonderful white, visibility was down to a few yards, the islands had disappeared into a lost landscape and the beach had become a world of mystery and magic.  How appropriate that this week ITV is filming for a 13-part adaptation of Beowulf on the very beach at Bamburgh where this time last year we greeted the fiendish Thane of Glamis in the person of Michael Fassbender. We never know whom will next encounter, particularly when running in and out of a haar. Young Nicholas is frightened lest we see Bear-Wolves for he is as yet a child in literary terms. From the sands beneath the castle we sniffed the fascinating smells of strangers human and equine, carried beneath the rolling white cloud. Reluctantly we drew away to get on with the struggle into the unknown; we then heard the echoing clomp-clomp of hooves coming from inside the massive horse transporter, signalling to the grooms that these warhorses were eager for their day’s work to begin. Slightly alarmed by the eeriness of it all, I wondered if we would be followed on to the beach, or whether the warriors would canter out of the clouds towards us, bearing another world into ours, which – today – we could hardly see, let alone recognise. Had Hrothgar be visible upon the battlements when the mists eventually dissipated, we wouldn’t have been surprised though we were concerned lest Grendel should be lumbering along the shoreline where the high tide wetted our paws, leaving no room to escape.

June 2010 178Today’s thoughts are therefore full of our favourite Anglo-Saxon hero, Redwald, King of the Wuffings, who is thought to be buried at the wondrous site of Sutton Hoo, above Woodbridge in Suffolk. Uncle Jonny loved his regular visits there: the circular wooded walk where beechnuts could be picked; the legendary slabs of home-made cake available in the National trust tea room; the burial mounds, like giant mole hills; the ghosts that whispered in the clear morning air. One day I should like to take young Nicholas there, with the big boys, so he too can gaze across the thin membrane which masks the past. Like Bamburgh, Sutton Hoo is a thin place, where past and present stare at each other just as Redwald’s meadhall is tangible still at nearby Rendlesham,and Botolph’s presence remains at Iken’s anchorage.  It is good to have our English hero Beowulf riding among us for a day or two, blazing through the mists of time in heroic reality. That is what drama’s for.

To learn more about the exceptional importance of and wonders to be found at Sutton Hoo, look at these webpages:

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/k/the_sutton_hoo_ship-burial.aspx

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo/

As the world turns upside down . . .

IMG_2363What a week it has been.

The depths of winter are expressed up here by incredibly varied weather; until recently it’s been peaceful, with splendid dawns, quiet days and starry nights, often when other parts of the country are beset by rain and raucousness.  Over the last ten days or so, however, the wind’s been knocking on our door much more frequently and we have had to be on our toes as things change, sometimes quite violently. Only yesterday, twenty-four hours after we had to abandon the beach because of the gales, stillness, calm and clear skies greeted us. High winds and foul weather were predicted overnight, though, so our hearts sank, our morning run looking unlikely. As it turned out, however, things were what we’d call normal, with a bright sky, a brisk wind but gusts which were quite manageable for us all, even for those of us fairly close to the ground.

As the day has worn on, however, the storm has intensified and outside now it is squally 20150105_080516and wretched, as we found on our afternoon outing. The sea is charging towards the land, white wave after white wave, across a disappearing expanse of sand whose swirling grains blind as you criss-cross the beach. Tomorrow’s run looks very unlikely. But who knows? We take each day as it comes, eyeing the dire BBC national weather forecast with scepticism until we see what the new dawn actually brings, as our part of the coast has its own little micro-climate. It is one aspect of life up here with the Dickens Dogs which helps to comfort and secure us, despite everything going awry elsewhere.

20150115_123216Since Nicholas’s arrival at the end of November, routines have been paramount, and he is learning well what is expected of him. I have received a couple of bonuses: a daily chew for me alone to enjoy after supper and a daily extra outing with Kemo Sabe – my heart will surely burst, so much joy is now mine – in which I charge around chasing and retrieving my beloved ball, faithfully returning it, over-enthusiastically and noisily. This new routine obviously has something to do with the arrival of young Nico (whom I secretly think of as The Long Ranger), who takes up a good deal of everybody’s attention. Uncle Newman, being more mature and bigger-hearted than I, simply doesn’t mind and patiently smiles as the infant chews on his tail. He is settled and secure; gradually Barnaby and I are uniting round him, as our little pup grows in our hearts.