Come one, come all

IMG_3304Although the World Conservation Union in its wisdom has good reason for  putting them on the Least Concern species list, in this household at least concern for the well being of last year’s little family of house martins has known no bounds. We have kept both our fears and our hopes well under control and entirely unspoken, lest the least whisper nourish either and all be lost. Yet we have longed for their return, knowing full well that there is every reason why they might be prevented from so doing.  Last October we pondered on their dramatic departure, and the burial of the last clutch of young, thrown from the nest by the parent who recognised she must sacrifice them, or sacrifice herself to the shortening days and worsening weather if she delayed her departure in order to raise them. As if we saw a premonition of the difficult winter we faced without them – to what fate they were abandoning us – the Sunday that she left the nest silent at last was a bereavement: the loss seemed almost intolerable; their fragile flight unimaginable, across terrain we will never see, thousands of miles from here over hostile territory, where dangers natural and man-made would assail them. Six months have since passed; six months in which we hoped they had enjoyed life on the wing, consuming thousands of insects, shone in the warmth of a southern sun, while we here endured a melancholic mourning. Theirs has been a dark, depressing absence. When we saw the sand martins in the dunes last week, our spirits rejoiced and a tiny hope arose like a dot of light on the horizon; would our house martins survive and, if so, would they choose to return to us as May got going and the days warmed up? We did not dwell on the response. She's back 7.23 5.9.15

But, this morning, as we entered the study  there they were, chattering away unmistakably in the nest just outside the window, newly arrived overnight and as loquacious as any holiday-maker who has reached his destination. As I ponder now they are busily warbling away as they tuck themselves in, having spent today on the wing above our rooftops, gathering strength by feeding and, in between, returning to clean out the nest. Now, as the sea mist intensifies, they have settled, and we can, too. It is a mysterious peace they bring.

Truly it can be said: that these little creatures, so perfect and so peerless, have negotiated life’s vicissitudes and safely found their way to us again is a wonder more blessed and staggering than all the black holes and dark stars and whatever else in our extraordinary universe, so enthralling to so many. Little chirruping thing: ‘thy life’s a miracle’. You honour us with your presence.


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!

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.

Three (and now four) in a row

David Saunders
David Saunders

Late August is the time when the visitors start to go away, as though the chill in the air pushes them homeward, incapable of withstanding the wind unlike the rest of us, to whom the sand and sea are left. It doesn’t take much for the beach to empty, even in the midst of the sunniest of summer days: a sudden shower of rain, the sky clouded over – anything other than sustained good weather frightens off all but the hardiest of holiday-makers and they, to give them credit, will hang on in there come the most miserable of days, flying their kites, building their castles and surfing the waves.

But come late-August, after the Scots have returned to school, there’s a perceptible downturn in traffic and this coincides with the migrant birds leaving us as well. The puffins have long gone, off to the North Atlantic in the frightful swell of which they will bob about without sight or shelter of land until they return to us next April.  And though we saw the sand martins near Monks House this morning, still darting after insects around and about the dunes they’ve made their homes for the last few months, the silence outside the window beside which Kemo Sabe and I write suggests that our dear, sweet house martins, having raised three broods with so much wonderful chatter and chortling, may  – without so much as a bye-your-leave – have nipped off while we weren’t looking.

We cannot escape the sadness engendered by these changing, troubling times, with their uncertain journeys of thousands of miles, embarked upon by tiny creatures whose experience of life is restricted to a miraculous muddy shelter or a fragile, feathered nest. We wonder if, by any chance, we will ever see any of them again, even without knowing it, and ponder on how we have been of use to each other, providing fellowship, bed and board to those we don’t know but nevertheless, and in spite of ourselves, protect.

IMG_2964Yesterday, as we trundled along the shore, we looked up to see our first geese – just the three of them – blazing a trail across a steely sky, to their feeding grounds.  There were four of us boys, for young Nicholas is now accompanying us on our morning runs, experiencing for himself the sights and sounds of our magnificent Northumbrian shoreline. He listens and is full of wonder, too; the miracles are entirely new to him, little lad who is not yet one year old. Where have they gone? Where have they been? Like the souls of the faithful departed, in a sense they are always with us; one great communion of nature, moving ever onwards in the cycle of life.

Three years on, and counting

20140911_065258Last week on the beach we met some visiting New Yorkers  who were excited about seeing puffins on the boat trip they’d booked for the following day. Their dismay was palpable when we said that the puffins had already abandoned the Farnes for a life in the North Sea over the coming months; they really took some convincing that despite their desperate desire to see the puffin population, it simply would be impossible.  By mid-September, having raised their jumplings and seen them off into the watery world they would thereafter call home, instinct had driven them up and away to an adventurous life at sea, away from land until their webbed feet touch our rocks again next spring. However much the visitors may have wanted – nay expected – to see our iconic seabirds, they were confronted by a simple fact of nature:  the birds have their own agenda, and their own way of life. The winter months are their secret, when unseen and unwitnessed, they confront uncertainty  – surely something they enjoy.

220px-Emberiza_hortulana_1The sadness of saying goodbye to summer visitors like the puffins and the swallows, some of which are still diving about round the dunes and returning to the church porch where they were born, is balanced by the beauty of the quietness they leave behind; the mist rises and falls as the hours unfold, revealing further wonders of a world remade after the birds have been abounding. No less than eight young herons, tall and touching, practise identifying the pond life which will sustain them, temporarily drawing strength and confidence from a togetherness on the mere which will desert them once they mature. Safe for now from its human hunters in southern Europe, an ortolan bunting lands on Inner Farne; we pray it remains safe, though we will not see it again and will never be sure. Like daily life itself, we take it step by step, pondering on the preciousness of life, whether it be the junior frog I spotted climbing slowly across the fossils round our pond – welcome to a different environment young Pardiggle – or the beginning of my third year. Every dawn is different, every sea remarkable. Yesterday we had the first real rain since we can’t remember when. Thursday we hope our Scottish neighbours will want to stay with us. Those in danger far from home endure unimaginable pain. I lie at Kemo Sabe’s feet. Tomorrow is another day and I humbly give myself up to it.


Where thou fliest I shall not follow

Photo of harrier @ChrisGPackham
Photo of harrier @ChrisGPackham

Over the last few days we have been saddened to our very souls by the reports coming from Malta, where the annual migrating bird hunt is on. Beautiful birds, – known and loved by us all – are brought down by waiting guns, who think of this activity as sport. Your humble author, a gundog to his fingers’ ends, and connoisseur of coney and cock pheasant, is bewildered by this hellish hoovering up of the innocent. These are not game birds; mostly they are inedible or too small to get a meal from. It’s been a long time since larks’ tongues were set in aspic and set before a king. Or so we thought.

Fortunately, heroic naturalist and bird-lover, Chris Packham, with other brave folk, has been trying to interrupt the killing and engage the hunters, as they pursue their ugly and incomprehensible slaughter.  He has shone the light of publicity on this revolting practice, which is carried on in the face of an official EU ban. His Tweets with their accompanying photos are harrowing and heart-rending, as are the exhaustion and revulsion on Chris’s own face, as he endures day after day of his peaceful protest beside the dead and wounded. Countless beloved summer visitors, eagerly making their way to English shores where we are longing to welcome them, are being shot from the sky every day: birds of prey, like this harrier, swallows which in summer share our coastline with the skylarks and wagtails safely here at home with us and waiting for you, and now you will not be coming. How can this be?

When you realise what fate is in store for these amazing creatures, after thousands of miles on the wing, a small spaniel like me wonders why they ever bother to go away from us in the first place. There is food a-plenty for them here, honest and truly there is.  As someone famous once wrote:

O swallow, sister, O fair swift swallow,
Why wilt thou fly after spring to the south,
The soft south whither thine heart is set?
Shall not the grief of the old time follow?
Shall not the song thereof cleave to thy mouth?
Hast thou forgotten ere I forget?

To learn more about the harrowing events in Malta, and what you can do to help stop them, you will find Chris’s on Twitter (@ChrisGPackham) and his most recent video report here:




A long long way from home


The last time we saw this little chap he was scuttling towards us just above the water, one lovely evening on Andrew’s boat early last August. Soon after he flew frenziedly past our bow that time, the puffins left the Farne Islands: our little bundle flapped furiously off into the vast and cruel Atlantic, never to touch land again until he returns to us in spring. Way out there, somewhere beyond the horizon – and a frighteningly long way from home – he remains; a tiny creature cast upon an awful stage, in an unfolding drama unscripted and uncertain. Imagine: as I ponder on this very thing, he is enduring with fortitude and an almost miraculous capacity for survival the kind of wind and weather of which our recent wild experiences can only give a hint. Though last Spring’s winds and seas, which were especially ghastly, killed thousands of young puffins on east coast beaches, throwing them up on the sand like puppets, the National Trust wardens counted the surviving population and found it thriving and increased in numbers. Being small myself, and much smaller than my Dickens brethren, I cannot comprehend how something quite so little can endure so much, and willingly wander such a very long way from what we would call his home.


But now we hear about another novelty of nature; about a small starling-sized bird with a delicate rusty-red splodge on his little head. He has seen such things as we can only dream on: the volcanic northern wastes, the white of Greenland, the lighthouses on Cape Cod, the sandy coastline just like ours, and on and on down to a palm-strewn coastline, waters bluer than the sky, the manta rays all shapely in the sea, the continents all passing, one by one. Dear little creature, knap-sack with your passport on your shoulder: there, and back again! We – who can barely understand the meaning of a life beyond these walls, beyond our beach, beyond our castles – salute you. And all winged creatures like you.

Read about and see this wonderful small bird at this website: