Come unto these yellow sands

20160506_070626Yesterday was, for us up here in the extreme north east of England, the first really lovely day of early summer. After a few weeks in which winter’s temperatures returned with a vengeance and, whatever else was happening with that light in the sky, it remained cold and windy, yesterday we all felt we had at last crossed the boundary between one climate and another. Today the sun’s warmth fulfilled its promise, rising cheerfully and posing charmingly above the islands and the sea. What wind there had been had dropped overnight, maybe to a 2 or 3 on the Beaufort Scale (there was no shipping forecast on the radio this morning, so Kemo Sabe says we can’t be sure); the beach was deserted, the tide a way off, the rocks revealed and the sands as comforting as the beams which warmed them.

On such a morning, as we all gaze in wonder out towards Holy Island and Cuthbert’s hermitage on Inner Farne, blessed beneath such an expressive sky and such promising light, sparkling with possibility, it’s not hard to see why this place has a magnetic quality and transformative power, too. One’s imagination fills with words from that poignant creature, Ariel, about how the sea brings home its riches, some of greater worth than others, to such a shore as this. The famous words are sung here as they were at Stratford for the RSC in 1978 by the much-missed actor Ian Charleson, with music composed by Guy Woolfenden, who died only recently and whom we will always remember for bringing the songs of our favourite famous poet and dramatist to life in memorable and unique ways.



Welcome hither as is the spring to the earth

20160425_073658It is with something like delirious joy that we can report the return of the sand martins to our dunes.  Forerunners – we hope – to the house martins we’re just longing to welcome back to our part of the world, the first sand martins suddenly turned up last Thursday, resuming their domestic duties in their perfectly preserved and previously abandoned little nest holes which pock-mark the dunes above our sandy morning trail. Increasing in number every day since then, the sand martins’ aerial dances are becoming more hysterical and expressive as families are reunited and old friendships renewed: how relieved they must be to have completed such a marathon safely, having made it back to the land of Oswald and Aidan once again, all the way from the other end of Africa. Unfortunately, the wind turned northerly today, so sand martins still on the wing – and there must be thousands of them – will find it tough to push north, if our little kingdom is their desired destination.

At the end of our run along the beach, the sky blackened with impending rain and, by mid-morning there was a tiny blizzard, which we thought was cherry blossom blown upon the wind. How fond we are! Despite the gales, the sun has supervened and it’s been a cheery day. Christopher Wren checked out his nest box and was dismayed to find the blue tits well ensconced therein; he helped himself to a consolation prize of dried meal worms  and then disappeared into the hedge, probably to check out another favourite site. Above us, on our chimney stack, the jackdaws are content and busy, much more relaxed since last year’s gulls have found another nest site and stopped staring down into the jackdaws’ nest. You can see how intimidating these intelligent creatures find the herring gulls, staring with their beady eyes and daring them to move towards the entrance.

It is remarkable how much pleasure the birds give to us all. We watch the bulky wood pigeons, so patient and so ungainly, yet so capable of stillness, and chase them into flight when we get the chance. We wish that the starlings, so numerous, so noisy, wouldn’t eat all the fat balls, put out for the sparrows, our loyal little friends. We long, one day, to see a raven for real – the magic corvid who found St Oswald’s severed arm. Every day we notice more and more of the wonderful in the entirely ordinary. Every morning, winter and summer, the sands below the massive fortress of Bamburgh are our palette, on which the imagination works its colours and, on the anniversary of his birth and death, the words of the most famous of all famous poets come, once again, to mind:
The blessed gods,
Purge all infection from our air whilst you
Do climate here!

The fall of a seagull

Resting place for a tiny life, unlived.

As it happens, last week’s British newspapers and correspondence columns were crammed full of anti-gull stories – a tortoise pecked to death like a crab in Liskeard, Cornwall; in the same county, a beloved little Yorkshire terrier mortally attacked in his garden near Newquay; tales of The Birds-like horror of trying to eat ice cream or chips al fresco, constantly assailed by dive-bombing nasties. One correspondent compared being woken by the gulls’ early morning chatter and clarion calls to being in a canyon full of pterodactyls.  Nobody had a good word to say about them; instead, everyone was complaining about their protected status.

Maybe because our Northumberland gulls aren’t in the slightest bit aggressive, maybe because we are just plain daft, (as readers of my ponderings know) gulls give us enormous pleasure year on year, particularly watching them rear their young, something they do over weeks and weeks of selfless devotion and complete commitment.  And so it was with great joy we all noticed that about seven weeks ago an insignificant life had began to take shape on top of the chimney breast above our home. Within a day or so of three eggs hatching we had the mystery of one chick disappearing, presumed dead and then, perhaps in the same crisis, our Tiny falling from the nest, down the slope of the tiles and on to the flat roof above the upstairs bay. On that eyrie he has withstood everything that Nature has thrown against him: electric storms of an intensity unseen in years up here, lashing rain, wailing winds, constant drizzle some days, and thirst-making sunshine on others. Despite everything, Tiny held firm, developing his survival skills in every eventuality. Gradually our intense worry for his safety subsided, so capable and resilient he proved to be.

Perhaps his legs had never been that strong, after his early fall from the cradle, despite his burgeoning bulk and adolescent plumage. Perhaps the wonder is that he endured as long as he did because he never recovered his strength and ability to get about after his collapse on to next-door’s concrete path.  Had he been born on the Farnes, like the kittiwakes and guillemots, he’d have fallen from the cliff and become opportunistic food for the gannets or other seabirds. Anyway, though we fed and watered him, and summoned the RSPCA to help him as he weakened, he drifted off from this life on his own accord, his wings outstretched in hope – almost a fully-grown herring gull, but one who would never know the joy of flying over us on our daily runs, or seeing the sun rise on a winter morning. He now lies not far from Uncle Jonny, with two lovely violet plants to mark the spot where we carefully and very sadly buried him. Just a tiny, insignificant creature, but loved and cared for: our sadness and disappointment are very real.  High above, looking down on Kemo Sabe as she dug the little grave, the bird’s father stood guard high up on the chimney cowl; beneath him, the female, sitting on the nest. As we write this, Tiny’s sibling is paddling up and down the roof. Let’s hope he can endure with patience until his flight feathers and muscles can carry his weight up into the life awaiting him.

Weather warning

IMG_3009Since the storm the other night, things have been quieter; sunny and pleasantly breezy. Horatio has had a real chance to dry out and relax up there above us all. Early tomorrow morning, however, the forecast is for heavy rain of record-breaking proportions: a month’s-worth in an hour – that kind of thing. That’s quite apart from the electric storms passing over, as well. It all sounds very dire and we are all worried. Horatio’s isolation up there on the roof – with only the narrow flat surface above the bay window to cling to or the slope of the tiles, and with the chimney breast affording the only kind of cover available – makes him the most vulnerable and a constant worry to everyone. We hope the Great Spirit will protect him, and the rest of his family, whatever the night may bring.

When the hurly-burly’s done!

IMG_2975 (2)Here is our hero, Horatio, the tiny herring gull baby, who is growing up on the roof, divided from the rest of his family since he fell from the chimney shortly after hatching, but attended lovingly by one parent or another and growing steadily every day, despite gasping for refreshment when it’s a bit too warm, hunkering down when it’s breezy and doing his best to keep dry. His condition is concerning at the best of times – for he is mostly alone and heaven knows what he is thinking; but, after what he went through last night, we really didn’t expect to see him again. Let me explain.

Yesterday turned out to be the hottest day of the year in Britain, though up here on the Northumberland coast we had rather a mixed bag of splendid sun, overcast skies and a continuous blustery wind which kept everything pleasingly fresh. So, while we listened to the out-of-touch-as-ever-when-it-comes-to-weather-forecasts BBC, rattling on endlessly about rail tracks buckling, office workers taking sickies and the wilting folks at Wimbledon, everything carried on as normal here.  However, while the rest of the country got the day-time scorcher, we up here in the north east suffered its after-effects when, at about 1.30 in the morning, the drama of a massive electric storm – unlike anything we’ve ever seen before – began.

In the kitchen, Newman and I dug our heads into our bedclothes, hiding from the frightening flashes of lightning which brought a kind of daytime to the middle of the night. As the heavens resounded with cracks and rolling thunder, I could sense as I stole a peek out the cat flap the eerie stillness which had replaced yesterday’s wind, providing a scary backdrop to the drama of light and noise which tumbled all around us. Nico started barking at his first experience of the truly frightening and utterly baffling, the swathes of white light one moment, the fractured fingers of light piercing the black sky the next.

What could the infant bird be making of all this, we thought; his feeble frame and downy body, his incapable arms? Just when you’d think the night had done enough beneath the enormous moon, torrents of rain began to lash the roof and windows, a downpour in the truest sense, enough to drown the creature utterly, we surely thought. But there was nothing any of us, even a tearful Kemo Sabe, could do, as there never is when the little bird is so far above us and we are so useless below. In truth, though, as our thoughts of him contending with the hours of horror disturbed any chance of finding peace, we commended him to the Great Spirit, praying that somehow, however unlikely that might be, he might be spared.

IMG_3011And, wonderful to relate, he is. The herring gull family has triumphed again, though we shall never know how and, as this morning’s picture shows, all is calm and bright, parent on guard and chicks in order against a cloudless sky. Hang in there, somebody famous once said, and indeed Horatio did. He deserves a hero’s name because, like so many creatures, he faces life’s vicissitudes with equanimity and determination: a Wellington, or a Nelson. If only we could all be so brave.  How ironic that King Lear’s words had never cut so deep:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?

That we could care so deeply about a creature considered by many round here to be so insignificant and two-a-penny, if not a downright nuisance, says a great deal about the capacity to care.


Royal Navy Frigate (WikiCommons)

The never-ending sunlight of May and June is a constant joy, despite the depressingly wet and windy weather which arrived the morning after the shortest night of the year. The garden is a patchwork of greens, all shades of the colour, fresh and sparkling, thrown into relief by the flourishing old roses which weave up and about, in and around all the variegated shrubs. We rise and retire in the same level of light, our days being much longer up here in the extreme north. We hardly see the night, this time of year, though we know it visits – briefly.

This is a week of high tides and, in a turbulent sea – an ominous dark grey presence against the wide grey sky – we spot what looks to be a naval Frigate, anchored and vigilant off the Bamburgh coast. So used are we to the unusual – the cameras, the detectives, Norrellite magicians, the very Thane of Glamis himself – we simply note the newcomer in passing but move on, wondering why the ship is there and who has set it there, to witness our routine. Today, with a strong wind pushing against us, the beach of more than three miles is utterly deserted; the four of us pondering to ourselves as we trundle, past broken crab claws, jettisoned seaweed, and with the ever-encroaching tide reaching for our footprints as we pass. Watched only by the glowering creature swaying slowly with the force six waves.

John Haslam

The herring gulls, of which I spoke last week, have delivered three chunky babies on to our chimney stack, but within a day or two one of them had fallen with remarkable sangfroid on to the roof, coming to rest on the flat top of the upstairs bay. There, its vigilant and attentive parent sits protectively by and indeed on it, keeping the rain and driving wind at bay, in between fishing expeditions, at which point Mum or Dad left by the chimney pots with the others has to mount guard over everyone. Such touchingly selfless concern moves us all. I draw tiny Nico to me and invite him to play. What we can learn from humble birds, and ones hated by so many round here, too.

Delicate air (which gives delight . . .)

Michael Palmer
Michael Palmer

When Uncle Johnny, Newman and Barnaby came to live here in Northumberland several years ago, there was a neat little cup of a mud nest under the eaves. Though they hoped to see its owners return to breed in it, no one ever came to claim it and then last summer its remains were lost in the building work for the extra bunkhouse. It was sad that the remnants of what had been a sign of the house being blessed by such special creatures were removed permanently, but that seemed to be that.

What utter joy then, when last week we realised that our little homestead had at last been blessed by a family of house martins who, in what seemed like an eye’s blink, had manufactured a robust, brown home and filled it with twittering offspring.  Hidden beneath the overhanging wooden eaves, if you stand by the house wall and look up you can easily see the perfectly-formed nest so well protected from the elements and, at certain times of the day, watch lots of comings-and-goings accompanied by loud chattering. Though Kemo Sabe’s attempts at photography are pretty woeful, we live in hope of a better shot. It is heartening to think that these lovely birds, who spent the winter thousands of miles to the south of our coastal community, have chosen us for this, their most significant life event – creating a new family. I remember hearing that Banquo, Macbeth’s dear friend, a good man who knows what goodness looks like and says so even when others are blinded by evil, sees the house martins nesting at Macbeth’s castle. He can seem silly when he pays the birds homage, saying that wherever such as they choose to raise their young things are okay. But he is right and the irony is not lost. The innocence of the creatures which choose us for their bedfellows is an inspiration and call to action.  This year, next door’s seagulls have removed themselves to our chimney breast, the spikes having proved too much for them at last. Today, the attentive herring gull parents revealed three tiny chicks, newly-hatched; such a prolific, successful pairing.  Such joy accrues from the bird-life round here, no matter whether mundane, like the gulls, or magic, like the martins. As Banquo himself says:

This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendent bed and procreant cradle:
Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed,
The air is delicate.

What have we done to deserve this, I ask?

Place in the sun

IMG_1710A new addition to the stumpery is this reclining stone spaniel, probably as heavy as I and now placed not far from Uncle Jonny’s grave where they can keep an eye on each other. It is old and lovely and, from a distance, incredibly life-like. I am thrilled to have been commemorated in my lifetime and shall do my best to be thought worthy by continuing to deliver the daily canine goods to all I meet.

IMG_1705As I write, England is expecting a heatwave, though up here where it never swelters, we should only get to the mid- or high seventies Fahrenheit. This morning, on a very high tide with very little beach left to run along, we all skirted the gentle foam as the fingers of the sea reached to catch our ankles and Newman was allowed a morning swim against the prevailing wind and tide, which helped to tire him out, though in this picture he is gazing up at Peter, Paul and Mary (who are merrily peeping continuously and maturing everyday). Up in their own sunny little world.

IMG_1712My small band of loyal readers includes a person in Brazil, and we all wonder what  someone in such an enormous and fascinating country could find of interest in my pitiful ponderings. Lately of course Brazil has been much in our minds, and we have tried to find out more about it; with every change of venue during the World Cup (O good, it’s Costa Rica tonight, we would shout!), we would check the atlas and locate the stadiums of the day in their disparate locations, so far flung, so exotic – the humidity, the sun!  Despite the woeful awfulness of our own over-indulged footballing side, we enjoyed others’ efforts in the sun hugely and saw some real heroism on occasion, too.  Running for the ball into the sea had never seemed such fun (‘And today I was Klose’, I began to compose in my head).

My little world is currently lush and green, with plenty of grass to chew and bees to watch and listen to, against the aural backdrop of Jussi Bjorling and Victoria de los Angeles at the end of La Boheme. The overwhelming emotions evoked by Puccini’s music throw into relief the fact that our dear Jeoffry is looking thinner these days and that, like the rest of us, he is not getting any younger. But at least he has the sun to sit in, as do we all.

And to our reader in Brazil: a special greeting and thank you for being there!

More fur and feather

IMG_1701 In the short few days between taking these shots of our famous triplets – the top one was taken last evening –  you can see how fast they are developing their adolescent plumage from the fluffy down which recently adorned them. Tended by their adoring parents, Peter, Paul and Mary are bigger than ever and ever hungry. Until recently, when one of them peeped for something to eat, the tiny but piercing noise would be accompanied by a gentle but perceptible lifting of the wings, an endearing trope indeed. In turn each is now extending those little wings, strengthening their resilience in preparation for the harrowing first flight, whenever they are ready to try.  How extraordinary that a seabird so commonplace, and indeed so loathed by even some of the people round here (happily not Works All Hours and All God’s Creatures Welcome, whose chimney stack features here), daily brings so much pleasure and joy to us as they go about their little lives.

IMG_1689The simplest things are so often the most precious. Indeed, as I write this, Kemo Sabe has had to greet and feed the visiting Mantalinis who are currently chowing down on the front lawn, their glowing colours and splendidly mottled feathers a wonder of the world. Similarly, the rotund sparrows which bustle and beep in all the bushes, dashing across the garden from rose to honeysuckle, cheeping and chirping with joy apparently undiminished by a turn-down in the weather, such as we had yesterday. The opulence of nature is adorned with the glories of commonplace natural life: tadpoles in the pond, snails on the gate, and starlings, blackbirds and thrushes thrusting nutrition down the throats of the next generation as quickly as we can keep the supplies topped up. Together as we are, all year round, our native species and we the creatures of the house are all in it together and all the better for that.

Peter, Paul and Mary: an update

IMG_1684The insistent peepings from above remind us constantly of the triplets’ presence and, looking up, we can easily see how quickly our herring gull offspring are growing. Kemo Sabe has taken several rather poor photos over recent days because it’s proved terribly hard to get the three youngsters together, standing upright and looking at their best.  This picture was taken this morning and at least clearly shows the juvenile plumage emerging from the fluff. One of the parents is also looking charmingly smug, while sitting as ever on its favourite cowl. As we watched the gulls this morning, the swallows were dipping in and out of our vision as they wheeled about the chimney stacks and down around the rooftops. Above our own house the jackdaws squawked and flew about merrily, discussing their immediate plans as they did.  The joy expressed by our much-loved and abundant bird-life was, however, lacking first thing this morning on the occasions we greeted solitary walkers on the beach but without getting any response whatsoever. This kind of thing isn’t uncommon but is baffling, particularly to a special spaniel with a friendly turn of ankle. I wish the dour ones all the best and run on, pondering.  Despite the weather forecast’s prediction, our little coast was this morning bathed in hot sun,  and the waters were calm and high: glorious. When the sand is soft, it’s like wading through treacle! Perhaps today I am Beau Geste!