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:





Comings and goings

20170920_065540.jpgNicholas, three next Monday, has been really unwell lately and has made three visits to the vet on account of a mysterious skin condition which, tests reveal, is caused by two bacterial infections. Worrying as this has been for all of us, apart from this Monday –  when his demeanour nose-dived as a (thankfully short-lived) depression developed – he has been his usual buoyant self. That day the vet found he also had an ear infection, and a temperature of 103 degrees, which must have made him very miserable indeed but, once he started treatment for that, his old indomitable character returned and, by bedtime, he was full of beans once more. Another couple of antibiotics to go and then, we hope, his irritating patches and sore pads will, we hope, gradually fade forever.

20170920_064806It has been a challenging and mysterious syndrome, which has intrigued the vet and will lead to allergy testing once he is fully fit. Most striking of all is the resilience shown by this tiny creature as his feet have borne blisters and his beautiful conker-brown coat has lost fur in tiny round patches. Despite everything, he has remained a very shiny sausage and, thank heavens, a hungry one: surely nothing is so worrying to those who love us as when we cannot bear to eat. My brush with that awful abscess early this year rendered me wholly unlike myself, unable to think of food as the pain and sickness racked my overheated little body. We are lucky that our human loved ones read us so well and, speaking the wordless language of love, intervene in time to bring us careful help. Every time we see a rainbow – like this extraordinary one, which recently accompanied the most amazing sunrise – we are reminded of the covenant between us.

20170908_162416All the swallows and martins are now well on their way south. We said goodbye and bon voyage to this last family, who remained a while after their fellow nesters had left, braving some miserable days in order to give the little ones extra flying and feeding practice around Bamburgh.  We wonder how they are, and the local swallows who gave us such a splendid aerial display only the day before they too disappeared. A bientot! And welcome pink-footed geese, crying as they traverse our coast and settle on the stubble, even as I write this.

When God closes a door  . . .





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:




‘Springwatch’? We’ve got everything right here!

20160524_065845We hear that BBC’s Springwatch is going to be filming on the Farne Islands again for the new series of this extraordinary live programme, shortly to be nightly on our screens. Whether it’s the puffins, gannets or guillemots – of whom there are currently thousands stinking out the islands with their guano – the Farnes have no shortage of wonderful bird life during the breeding season with which to delight the audience, and that is without mentioning the seals whose inquisitive antics always draw the cameras.





But on our own little beach trundle this morning it was all too obvious what wonders this area of Northumberland provides by way of a daily feast, the sea fret yielding gradually to intense sunlight upon the incoming tide which had even cast up a little pink sea monster, beautifully disposed upon the sands.

20160524_065220On a less glamorous, more everyday level, as May deepens into the lushness of June, everything around us on our daily perambulations seems remarkable. The heath behind the dunes and everyone’s gardens never look lovelier than now: birds never more songful; creatures  – great and small – never busier. Skylarks abound, and always do, but summer warbling visitors of all kinds are singing away from every type of bush. We have lost the curlews inland for now but above us the swallows dart and the martins chirrup. The dunes are drilled full of sand martin holes and the terns fight each other, over what we cannot know.

20160524_065933On the stone wall which separates his haunt from the hares running amok in the neighbouring field of winter barley, father pheasant patrols in the early morning mist. Fearlessly, he addresses the crow who comes too close to his family concealed nearby. Every year it is the same.

20160524_071804On the beach, near the horrid pool, the lumbering and much-loved toads have reappeared, mated and now – encouraged by the sun – their tiny offspring have wriggled into life, thousands of them 20160507_072124dancing for joy in their brackish backwater, straining for growth even as the water  – such as there is – recedes. How remarkable that year after year the parents return to find this little pool – a stone’s throw from the sea – retaining enough rain water (the only pool for more than a mile) to give their progeny a chance.

All that without even mentioning our nesting gulls! Finding the spikes a very acceptable sprung interior for the wads of dried vegetation they’ve pushed between them, affording the couple what looks like a very comfortable bed, they are once again ensconced on the chimney stack, awaiting the birth of this year’s brood.  Up there they now contend daily with our jackdaw family, whose nest is in the rear chimney, laying down the law to them regarding when to approach. Come one, come all, I say.


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.



Visitor from afar

IMG_3305 The other day we were all looking up at the now-empty nests in the church porch of St Aidan’s in Bamburgh. Until a month or so ago they were hives of activity for the extended family of swallows who have summered with us for the last twenty years. In South Africa, a friend has mentioned that ‘our’ Bamburgh  swallows are now with her. Thus it is that the miracle of the imagination creates wondrous relationships, spanning thousands of miles, with the ease of the miraculous.

Though the weather is currently really warm and sunny, we never really know how the days will turn out and this weekend when we put the clocks back, the blanket of the dark will settle on us for many months to come.  Here among the Dickens Dogs our thoughts go to the land far, far away where – we hope – our own family of house martins will by now be well and truly safely ensconced in their winter home. The silent nest outside Kemo Sabe’s study window awaits a joyful return early next summer; for now, it sadly reflects mere memories of egg-shell and feather while the little family enjoy plentiful insect-life snapped up on the wing, as they dart and dash about over countryside very different from this.  I wonder, do they ever think of the home they toiled so over, as we think of them? Such fancies come and go, as the leaves begin to settle and time moves slowly on.

IMG_3304Yet, in the interim, art and nature have combined in a sculptor’s hands to bring forth a special prize. We have a new friend here, an over-wintering house martin of clay and wire, a magical creation summoned from America’s South to warm us while we wait. Her bill is sharp and shiny and her eyes are lively enough to mock us with art. As someone famous once went on to say, ‘There is an air comes from her: what fine chisel/Could ever yet cut breath?’ For this lifelike and entirely charming creature we thank the artist who so loves birds and undertook to bring the joy of the house martin back into our lives. If you have a special bird you would like to bring into your life, take a look at this lovely website:

We pray our family of house martins may make a safe return to us in the fullness of time. All that is required is that we do awake our faith.

It’s those birds again

IMG_3080After three rambunctious days on which Force 8 gales swept down from the north west, hurling massive tides so high up the beach first thing in the morning that there simply wasn’t any beach left on which we could run, summer has returned with a blaze of glory – a set fair sun in a cloudless Northumberland sky. What a week it has been for the weather, that favourite subject of the English. As soon as the Bank Holiday was over and the families with children had left to send them back to school, the area quietened perceptibly so, together with the autumnal murk, I was glad when Kemo Sabe lit the stove and we were free to jostle one another for a piece of it. Our seagulls had long flown and, we were sure, so had the house-martins.  But then, yesterday afternoon, we found these . . .

Dead housemartin chicks: the mystery deepens
Dead housemartin chicks: the mystery deepens

The wind had abated, calm had supervened and we felt the warmth on our fur as we enjoyed a quiet beach, poking about the whelkery for shells thrown up by the storms. By the front door, on our return, as we jetisoned our shells on to the pile, we saw a tiny, tiny body, pink and perfect, directly below the nest under the eaves. Cast alongside were little white eggshells, neatly halved; as our eyes peered more closely we made out with developing alarm a total of four little creatures – all dead – all perfect and very recently hatched. Not a mark on them, just little tufts of down, here and there, as though dotted on with glue. Kemo Sabe picked them up gently and laid them out on a tissue. We wondered if their parents had abandoned them because of the recent appalling weather and consequent lack of food, perhaps even pushed them out the nest when they realised they’d better get going on their long, southward journey. This thought troubled and disturbed us deeply. What was clear was that the chicks had only appeared that day.

As the dusk began to encroach I sat beside Kemo Sabe as she waited at the window, gazing out at the various species of birds making the last of their day: dumpy woodpigeons lumbered about as best they could, a pair chatting on the electric wires across the road; a pair of gentle collared doves discussed their plans in affectionate lowered voices; starlings chattered on the telephone pole, beginning to think about lining up for a night’s rest together once they’d found their other hundred friends; over the farmyard along the road a kestrel hung attentively above the rooftops, gaze boring into the unfortunate rodent he had spotted far below him.

She's back 7.23 5.9.15Every ten minutes or so some house-martins whirled back into view high above the houses, drawing attention by their chattering cries and characteristic aerobatics. Kemo Sabe and I waited and waited, wondering about the dead chicks, why they had fallen since no one could have entered that fastness, and what it all could possibly mean. Nature, verily, red in tooth and claw. And then, as if by magic, just about eight – just after sunset – she flew straight at us, her last midge caught, with an accomplished almost silent dive down and then up into the muddy little nest, from where she chirruped and settled, her little face peeping out.  The on-off saga continues, and we record developments humbly. We are quite far north up here in Northumberland and, though these birds can stay until October, we were sure they had gone on their way. What ineffectual ornithologists we are. What mysteries lie within that nest, within that sweet, dark-blue, glistening little head, who has chosen to remain with us a little longer. And how glad we are.

Empty nest

IMG_3077Yes, they have gone! The silence as we write this is astonishing: the usual early-evening chatter, the twitterings and busy to-ings and fro-ings from the nest – all have ceased. Now only the house martins’ little home remains,  painstakingly constructed from the earth itself: like the remains of a lost civilization.  Our feeling of sadness is profound. Mr Pip salutes you – our dear departed family – wherever on your lengthy journey south you currently are. This is a sorrowful day, on which we are all marking the passing of a close family member a long way from here. Losing the birds at the same time only reinforces the sense of bereavement. We look in hope towards the sun as it retreats towards the equinox, as it has been doing all the while these enchanting creatures were amongst us. Now they are gone, the light will not be long in turning to meet us again and, in its warming rays, we trust that we will hear those tell-tale chatterings outside the study window once again.

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?