Solomon in all his glory

IMG_20170507_150455Yesterday, as we put on our winter woollies for another outing, we heard that the west of England was bathed in sumptuous sunshine. Well, we weren’t up here! Winter, or at least a kind of winter, had returned, with strong northerly winds and persistently grey skies.  Days and days of relentlessly depressing cold beset us and our dogged avian friends – all smiles and nestlings one minute; brooding in the east wind the next. What, we wondered, do they make of it, the magnificent little blue tits (‘I was born in that box!’), dutifully prising individual strands from clumps of Barnaby’s discarded pelt? Undeterred by the vicissitudes of the weather, they hunker down and warm each other in the shelters our demesne affords them, in sure and certain hope that all things will eventually change and that they’ll soon find comfort again, even if only in a rare bit of watery sun. On the beach the sand martins that arrived a few weeks ago had already developed additional nest holes in the dunes, suggesting that their numbers will be even  greater this year. Every morning we try to count them; an idle but compulsive activity to which we look forward, wondering what difference the awful weather would make to their plans to replenish themselves after a three-week flight. We saw nothing of them at all when the wind was at its worst, terribly cold and fierce. Such resilient creatures must have shrugged at such little local difficulties after the dangerous journey they’d made successfully from the south. Huddled safely within their shelters, they must have laughed at our concern, for their spirit – and their faith – are stronger than ours.

And they were right to lean hard, and hold on; for, by this morning, the wind had dropped and, by lunchtime, was coming from the south-east. As if by magic, the first local house martins appeared in the sky above our lane, chuckling with pleasure at the insect life awakening all around them. The nest from which ‘our’ family of martins moved on last June has been commandeered by sparrows, the chirping of whose babes within can be clearly heard from the study window. Yes, we hold the ones who stay very close to us indeed. Other sparrow families have moved in to the man-made martin nests installed last autumn, and a loquacious starling brood is living on a ledge under the guttering above a bay window; rattling calls alert us to the delivery of a new worm, every so often, as the parent tucks itself under and in to the nursery.

Last Sunday, BBC Radio 4 celebrated International Dawn Chorus day with a unique broadcast in which radio stations across Europe joined forces to track the rising sun across the continent from Moscow to Dublin, relaying the aural landscape of birdsong as the creatures woke and staked their claim on the day. This ambitious project resulted in a moving and humbling symphony of sound, to which the wild birds of Europe freely contributed out of sheer joy.  You will find access to the broadcast and episodes from it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08pdfyw

 

 

 

A week of sun and sausages

120px-Sand_Martin_(Riparia_riparia)_(14)The sand martins have begun to return to the nesting holes! Joy unconfined! Proof, if proof were needed, that life is gathering speed in our midst and that we – the watchers and the waiters – are worth the candle.  The wind-blown nesting places which have lain forlorn – and indeed unseen – as we passed beneath them on the 20160425_073658darkest mornings, are now alive with the chattering of the creatures which, with miraculous accuracy, have located them as home for yet another breeding season.  As of today there are at least four pairs, but, when the wind turns southerly again, numbers will shoot up and soon the dawn will be full of their gossiping voices.

20170331_125642Around and about our home itself, our friendly neighbourhood bird life is busy, too. Any returning house martins will be terribly disappointed to find that the boxes erected especially to attract them to our eaves have one and all been commandeered by our fat little sparrows, most numerous of ‘the ones who stayed’. Even the two natural clay martin nests are now providing bed and board to chatty couples, late risers though they be; unlike the sand martins they never celebrate the early morning sun or greet us on our return home after the run. But the dawn chorus of blackbird, robin and the rest is intensifying day by day and the dawn obliterates the moon ever earlier. Our jackdaws have kept an eye on their chimney throughout the winter, and now look set to get cracking with a brood. The feeders are kept full, so starlings newly returned to them can have a mouthful, too and, to the box in which they successfully raised their clutch last spring, have returned our blue tits, busy all day, every day, and so conveniently near the nuts and fat balls.

20170401_141432But if the birds know what they are about, that is more than can be said for the sausages. It says it all about the serendipity which characterises our little posse that a family get-together last Saturday at the Scottish Dachshund Club Championship Show, ended with both Nicholas and his sister, Tiggy, having qualified for next year’s Crufts. Having achieved second place in their respective classes, the terrible twosome will now be heading Birmingham-wards next March, ‘for the experience’, as they say. This picture captures all the chaos of the aftermath, 20170401_120107both from the confused disposition of the certificates (which, in a way, says it all) to the restlessness of pup Frederick, their tiny nephew, whose intervention displaced the intended line up. We are grateful to the friendly judge who found Tiggy and Nico worthy: it was a lovely surprise. Who knows, once he reaches six months young Fred will probably honour the ring with his presence and may even qualify as well!

Somewhere out there – soaring with the birds

20160920_070433-2Sometime earlier this year, at the height of the summer when our sky was filled with the life and light of the bustling birds, when hope was heavenly, when flowers curled around the stems, toads multiplied and martins chattered in the eaves, I listened to and wrote about Mahler’s music as I pondered their comings and goings. Now, at the end of a year, when we pass in the darkness before dawn  beneath the cliff with its empty sand martin nest-holes, when wind chases our heels as we run and whips our friends from our lives; now – in the depths of winter, and as storm after alphabetical storm tears across the sky, when nightmares haunt closed eyes and sleep eludes open ones; when everything is temptingly sour to the soul – it is time to listen and to be encouraged again.

Hearken to William Walton’s First Symphony, which is readily available online, if you do not have it at home. Listen to the questions posed, the answers given, the intensity without sentiment, and then imagine where are soaring the ones who’ve gone  – the singers of the songs, the little dogs who ran alongside us (two lost this week alone), the friends of yesteryear – and all that lies before us as we struggle on, as we must, to honour all those we have loved and lost this year. So very many, until it seems we can bear no more. But we must. For us there is only the trying, as someone famous once said.

You can find one excellent recording by the London Symphony orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, at this site:

The greatness of small things

20161025_113559In our garden, bushes bedecked with bird feeders chuckle with the noisy conversations of sparrows and dunnocks. Chirrups, quarrels, confrontations, reproaches, warnings, laughter and gossipings: they’re all there, creating the hubbub which, at certain times of the day, makes the garden a cathedral of noise. Then, just as quickly as it started, the noise stops, silence falls and the 20161025_113536parliament of fowls disperses as subtly as it formed, the little creatures gone to their rest, or to rootling somewhere else, perhaps. Wherever the sparrows are, it is the same; even last week but a stone’s throw from the Thames, in St George’s Gardens. Here, despite being in the very heart of Shadwell, further east than London’s Tower, nature thrums, and right behind St George in the East – one of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s iconic and mysterious churches – the cat seeks out Jenny Wren while her noisy carollings continue. Did that little hunter turn around rather sheepishly as we passed, or were we the embarrassed ones? This ancient graveyard is now the creatures’ playground and they are at home here: as are we.

20161025_102901Many visitors are struck by London’s incomprehensible size, which has the effect of siting its most popular landmarks often miles away from each other; the air on the main streets is choked with diesel; the crowds press on; the traffic and the sirens of emergency vehicles roar. But, to us, trekking on foot along its lanes and byways – our footsteps echoing our ancestors’ –  London is a land of tiny details: a succession of memories from time way beyond memory, a kind of fossil record of an entirely different kind, built in layers of little things and the ordinary things found in the great places.

20161025_113609And thus we find it, again and again on the streets beyond the City, where past meets present in the tread of a cat or the twittering of a bird. Amazing to relate, but despite being ringed round with busy streets, peace and wildlife abound within the award-winning garden on Portsoken, one of King George’s Fields, set up by the Lord Mayor of London in 1936 to honour recently dead King George V. Bat boxes, a wildlife pond and thoughtful seating await patiently the lunchtime seekers of peace and contemplation. During the middle of the day, Stepney Green is an elegant joy and the alleys around Wellclose Square, where Wilton’s Music Hall once again resounds to the human voice, whisper their ghostly secrets to those who listen attentively; once left for dead by a firebomb in 1941, the great white Hawksmoor church now ushers us inside its great wall of glass, candle in hand. Beyond the detail, in the mists of time above the rooftops, the Shard and the Gherkin stand guard: small things in their own way when compared with the conglomeration which is the heart of London – the City and that which lies to its east. A different kind of trundle from the beach, but what a place to walk, and to ponder.

 

 

Strangers and foreign lands

20160928_162254We recently travelled all the way up into Scotland, to Cromarty on the Black Isle, which is two shipping areas above us here in Tyne. This view looks out to sea between the headlands known as the Sutors, where the deep waters of Cromarty Firth open into the vast Moray Firth, and on this beach, blessedly free of the seaweed we are not allowed to gobble, it was a joy to run free and unmuzzled for once.

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Cromarty has one of the deepest anchorages in the whole of Europe which is why, when you look away from the open sea, you will find an amazing array of hardware – massive oil rigs at rest – cradled within the natural harbour: at night it’s like a scene from Apocalypse Now.  The rigs are those currently out of commission – the lower the price of oil, the greater the number – monsters ablaze with light, interlopers from another world entirely and incongruous in every way, save in their centrality to Cromarty’s economy and livelihood.

20160929_125940At Culloden, where the English dead lie vastly outnumbered by the unfortunate Jacobite Scots clans, we found another incongruity: a lone dog pooh bin upon the battlefield, where the car park provides not a single litter receptacle of any kind at all – a first, we have to admit!  Ironically, we were on the sombre moor when the rain finally abated, the sun emerged at last and we were able to mourn the departed clan members whose spirits wander over and around this atmospheric, doleful place.

20160929_150026Cawdor Castle, not far away, afforded an immediate sense of warmth and cosiness, its handy-sized drawbridge and dog-bowl by the front door inviting us in just as warmly as the smell of roasting beef which permeated the dining room within. Lady Cawdor was expected home shortly, we were assured. In the garden next to the castle, a magnificent copper bird-feeder drizzled seed continuously into troughs, as the little creatures fed at will. A place of plenty, this, and with a pleasant seat, as someone famous once said.

Barnaby was beside himself late one night in the garden of the house where we were staying: he found his first hedgehog rootling around the herbaceous border! Both creatures – dog and pig – were alarmed but Kemo Sabe held Barnaby tight and taught him gentle curiosity. In an expansive garden walled in historic stone, we saw the ice house, now used for storage, joined to the main house by a tunnel now blocked against unwarranted intrusion; we saw a note which warned us to beware of stepping on the toads which frolic in the cellarage and we heard that the chickens had been wantonly killed by the local pine martin. We were a long way north of here, and it felt like it!

 

 

 

 

 

Bird in the hand

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Today, with another magnificent sunrise, all are gone; well, apart from one or two very late migrators, that is. As the light gradually emerged, it was the sparrows and ducks we heard overhead  – not the sandmartins: their nesting wall was silent and abandoned, though basking in the autumnal sunshine as we passed beneath it this morning.

Film crews and stars have also packed up and 20160920_065657-2left us, after taking over all the car parks and bringing record crowds and traffic to the area over the weekend. On Sunday morning, the sky hummed with helicopters filming up and down the sands; only the security crew guarding the equipment and our little band were there, looking up into the dull, pre-dawn light at these extraordinary events, these sophisticated arrivals. But where there had been such frenzied activity and pavements-full of autograph-hunters, now there is only a forlorn line of lights, the last bits of kit awaiting collection, with nothing and no-one of note to illuminate any more. Yes, once again, things are very very quiet round here.

20160920_105243Yet, just up the coast, as we approached the causeway to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, there befell a small epiphany: a busy little bird suddenly swooped all amazingly through the open door of the barn-cafe where we we just about to sit with our elevenses and fell in confusion at Kemo Sabe’s feet. Like all truly miraculous moments it happened off-camera, like the reunion of Leontes and Perdita.  Kemo Sabe picked up the dazed little creature and held him to her, something she could never have imagined doing; steadying and encouraging him to overcome this setback and get him about his business, quietly astonished at the paraclete’s descent and the fact that it did indeed eventually revive, regain its equilibrium and fly away.

20160920_115954 On Lindisfarne itself, where seals were playing in the shallows near St Cuthbert’s hermitage, we were greeted by plentiful late swallows and martins feeding up in the ever-darkening sky (for the clouds were forming and the sun crouching as the weather front began to approach from the west). We were visiting as a kind of celebration of my recent fifth birthday, in honour of which Nico and I enjoyed a tiny bit of ice cream and, returning home, sausages with our dinner. But my magic day was made by a magic martin who said hello and goodbye in one fell swoop, an ineffable privilege which blessed us as we could never have hoped. So with Paulina we also say: ‘It is required you do awake you faith.’

 

 

 

 

 

Season of fruitfulness and unexpected plenty

20160907_122146The weather this last few days has been absolutely glorious and today the country is expecting somewhere or other to break the records for September heat: the hottest it has ever been this late in the year. Up here we have the paradox of Summer clasping hands with Autumn. Everywhere you look, there is plenty, bright sun and yet the feeling – despite everything – of emptying out. The arable fields have yielded their crops and along the newly-dug furrows our seagull friends do homage to the newly turned-over earth which has nurtured the cast-aside cereal they can fight over and enjoy. The roads are choked with agricultural vehicles bearing grain to the store beyond Bamburgh where it is weighed and dried. Just outside the kitchen window our vigorous fig tree keeps putting out more and more branches, bearing the tiny fruits which will never be ripe enough to eat; we are grateful for the tree’s optimism and fecundity, results which show that no effort is 20160907_122340ever in vain. Our apple in the front garden – far from ideally situated as it is overshadowed by several other lovely trees – is laden with rosy fruit; despite their size, they’ll be tasty and crisp, like last year’s crop. There are still plenty of colours out there, too. Though the wild roses have now finished flowering for good, their rosy-golden hips remain, both as food for the birds and as ornament to the world. The laden branches bend thoughtfully over the florets on the buddleia bushes, mostly brown now, and regularly dead-headed, but still a draw for the butterflies of all kids which have drunk from them hungrily over recent days. Nearby, other roses remain, cream and darkest pink; they will persevere for some weeks yet but their buds are increasingly unwilling to open, even when brought indoors. Several local families of swallows and housemartins are making the most of this Indian Summer, cascading across the sky and chattering wildly to each other as they gain confidence – and weight – when the majority, including our sandmartins, started their long journey in the mist and mournfulness at the end of last week. Thus, we are saying goodbye and good day simultaneously: things are different, but they are also very much the same. As Carl Sandburg wrote:

I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts.
The field of cornflower yellow is a scarf at the neck of the copper sunburned woman, the mother of the year, the taker of seeds.
The northwest wind comes and the yellow is torn full of holes, new beautiful things come in the first spit of snow on the northwest wind, and the old things go, not one lasts.

 

 

Departure day

 

To the ones who stay

(After the martins have gone and Mahler continues to play)

Up on the wire they congregate

A few left ‘We’re already late’ . . .

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The Jackdaws are the ones who stay

They watch their nest holes every day

They gaze at empty chimney holes

Then grub about for lifeless voles

Reflecting on this Spring’s success

They sneer at all the seagull mess

Forced in between the chimney tops

The clearing up there never stops

They rest where once they croaked and crept

When gulls defended chicks that slept

Perplexed that Autumn brings release

That empty nests mean rooftop peace

They sun themselves and bend their wings

Their brains still full of magic things

They know their nest is safe and dry

Within our walls where wind won’t fly

That through the winter months we’ll stay

As vigilant and calm as they

That if they swoop they’re sure to sound

Out something tasty on the ground

They peer across the cable line

Their job accomplished one more time

Pleased with the sun whose late warmth flings

Substantial rays on parting wings

But not for them the southern way

For Jackdaws are the ones who stay.

 

The Sparrows too are ones who stay

Their endless chatter fills the day

As busy now as in the spring

Ferocity in everything

A swelling crowd both front and back

Their chirruping an awesome craic

Full lives and bellies everyday

No one can take success away

These dress-down omnipresent mates

A Winterful of warmth awaits

Though commonplace and so more known

Than those who’ve felt the chill and flown

Ancestral as this home must feel

Its every corner cranny real

They eye the empty eaves again

Their policy against the rain

They note the muddy nests they’ll fill

With next year’s brood if Nature will

Gossiping endlessly their way

A stand they simply won’t betray.

 

Woodpigeons could not choose to go

This is the simplest life they know

Their lumpen thoughts and lumpen ways

Need cosy lives and routine days

Their wings could never take their weight

To fly so far or follow fate

The greyness of this sky reflects

The silver blue about their necks

This is their countryside and here

They take their chances year by year

With Wren and Starlings leaning hard

They fight and forage in the yard

Tits too emerge again to feed

They have here everything they need

As much our friendship as supplies

They have no wish to cross the skies

They settle for what God may bring

As creatures all together cling

In wind and weather ‘til the Spring.

 

Losses are what we cannot bear

To know that they are over there

Somewhere we cannot understand

A different sun a different land

Where like our children now set free

They live their lives in liberty

So let his music fill the space

Where we once watched them soar with grace

Beloved birds we wait to see

What graceful serendipity

Brings that May moment when we heard

The chuckling of our favourite bird

Again . . .

 

This morning one or two still fly

But this time in a wintry sky

Reminding us they too will go

And leave us sad down here below

Filling the bowls twice every day

For all the homely ones who stay.

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Each shining hour improved

20160803_063436Plenty of ups and downs this week, and plentiful holidaymakers to witness them. Weather-wise, we’ve had a bit of everything (including this magnificent double rainbow early one morning – immediately followed by the torrential rain which drenched us all over the three miles home), and for the next few days more extreme tides than usual, crowding everything – including the rubbish – into a smaller portion of the shore.

20160805_064548We Dickens Dogs are out and about very early, or so others remark; we see things others may well miss, like Johnny Heron perching quaintly on Monk’s House, gazing thoughtfully in the direction of the wood which houses the heronry where he was born. Usually we see him on nearby Greenhill Rocks, peering hopefully at the fishy bits and pieces coming in with the tide. His reflective demeanour, as he gazes across the meadow with its waterfowl, way beneath him and the other side of the road, indicates a personality pondering on something bigger than the next meal. Well, this is my domain, it seems to say; I must make the best of it.

20160804_120742In the front garden, those who would wish to see what is there must get a lot closer to the glorious white hebe, now in full flower. This is the sparrows’ favourite resort, a capacious and welcoming labyrinth of branches and cover for them throughout the year; a reliable resting place both day and night. During the months when the days darken quickly, the 20160719_175917bush glows with twinkling, tiny, blue lights – as though the winter chill is singing out for joy. In August, though, the hebe is completely covered with long, white spikes over which all kinds of bees, solitary bumble bee species as well as honey bees, buzz with joy as they sip their fill of nectar. If you look closely, insects of all sizes are visible, too – verily down to Alexander Beetle – drawn to the intoxicating perfume of this generous and ebullient shrub. Everywhere in the heathland beneath the castle there are wild flowers: copious supplies of thrift, harebells, lady’s bedstraw, bloody cranesbill, meadowsweet, silverweed and harebell. The insects thrive, thanks to nature’s bounty and, it has to be said, despite the ravages of careless visitors, too often blind to the wonders upon which they walk; too lazy to pick up after themselves.

 

 

One season following another

20160609_173255Although the heathland meadow behind Bamburgh Castle is bejewelled with wild flowers of all kinds and though it is only the end of July, you can feel that summer is already preparing to move on – particularly when the weather’s dull or drizzly and rather sorry for itself – and the ebullience of the busy season is beginning to yield to the thoughtfulness of autumn, and that’s before August even begins. T S Eliot is right, about time past and time present; his words echo thus in our minds.

20160719_064455Last week’s sweltering heat, so very unusual up here, dissipated after a few days and fresh and fragrant air returned to residents unused to airless humidity. As normal temperatures resumed, signs of times changing were apparent all around.  While we set off at six for our morning run now that the school holidays are here, and the influx of holidaymakers makes even a coast as open and vast as ours feel crowded, you can’t help feeling as you run across the sand that everyone is living on summer’s borrowed time. Near Monk’s House on the beach, we even noticed an errant curlew skating overhead on its way back inland for a few more weeks, having, no doubt, had a cheeky look at the seashore he’d been missing since he took to the uplands a few months ago. Pause for thought. Though there are still plenty of puffins for the tourists to photograph out on the islands, the ones who choose to leave early for the North Atlantic will soon be gone and, gradually, the nesting colonies of guillemots, terns, kittiwakes and gannets will begin to decline. Though holidaying humans still have several weeks left to litter the shore with plastic gewgaws and unassimilated bags of dog pooh, the young sandmartins and housemartins are fledged and growing ever stronger, and it won’t be long before they abandon their aerial practices and begin their long trek south. In no time at all, things will be quieter all around.

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Things are packing up in the garden where, despite the ripening apples, foliage of all kinds is looking worse for wear. This year’s gulls have fledged and shifted, accompanied by a chaos of calling from the entire flock; the chimney breast, and the nesting material there, is now for the jackdaws’ taking; peace has returned for them at last, now the gull fledglings are busy tackling their various tests of flying the coast and foraging for food for themselves: a rude awakening, once the security of their adoring parents is withdrawn. So, while we enjoy long, long days, with regular flashes of the northern lights after bedtime, the light is gradually diminishing, day by day. And though we cannot see it, we can feel it, all around: though summer is here, it is already moving on.