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:

 

 

 

 

Stranglers on the shore

20180404_070742The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men.

T S Eliot makes it sound so beautiful, and so poignant, here by the relentless sea. Indeed it is but, increasingly, it is more than a repository of discarded and lost fishing tackle with a tale to tell: it is a world of plastic and the enduring legacy of umpteen needless purchases which have woven themselves into our environment, abusing it and threatening the wildlife in myriad ways.

20180329_071300Recent reports came in from the National Trust warden on the Isle of May about spotting near the coast a seal enmeshed in rope. It is not surprising at all. More extraordinary is that we see so few of the effects of the polluted sea upon the creatures within it, caught up in the twine and the balloon ribbons, choked by the plastic toys, applicators and multi-coloured nurdles.  For we, who are among the first on the shore each day, witness an ever-increasing quantity and range of stuff cast up along the shore. We are no longer surprised by what we find. Sad to say, dead guillemots defeated by the recent storms seem normal and utterly acceptable by comparison.

20180404_071211Some jetsam is more troubling than other stuff and the sheer20180404_070917 variety can be utterly baffling. Recently a shipment of fine wooden planks was cast up on the north east and Scottish coast; this chemical toilet probably came from a boat, and we took it for a boiler cover until we gained a closer look. Nothing would surprise us.

20180401_072118However, the shipwrecked oddities which once had meaning and real purpose in everyday life are part and parcel of the big weather events, are to some extent expected and, of course, are usually easily removed. Not so the blanket of plastic rubbish of all kinds which is simply enmeshed in the seaweed and dune grass. The rubbish is ubiquitous and the task of eliminating it as a threat both to wildlife and the aesthetic enjoyment of our coast is obviously Sisyphean. Several of the morning dog walkers routinely collect what they can, bringing bags for the purpose as their dogs gambol and amuse themselves nearby. It is, of course, a hopeless task but as they say, every little helps. And today, reports in the Times suggest that since the charge on single-use plastic bags was levied in British shops, there are indeed fewer in the sea around us.

Now that the holiday season is about to begin, to what there is already will be added the additional throw-aways of the tourists: the barbecues, the full nappies, the plastic water bottles, the buckets and spades, the bags full of dog pooh – so carelessly discarded. After the BBC broadcast David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II this winter, the population of these islands responded with horror when they saw the effect of plastics in the world’s oceans. Perhaps the corner is beginning to be turned. Let us hope that what we undertake really does begin to make a difference.

To learn more about nurdles, go to: https://www.nurdlehunt.org.uk/

To read about the Isle of May in David Steel’s blog, go to: https://isleofmaynnr.wordpress.com/author/davidsteel2015/

 

 

Goodbye old friend

20180307_072255This has been a stressful few weeks, noteworthy especially for the terrible weather we have experienced so late in the winter. Today the wind and snow are at it again, tearing into our chests as we pound the beach – the only ones around. And, sad to say, things have changed for ever; for our dear friend, Bailey the Shar Pei, will no longer be there to greet us as we reach Seahouses, ready to chase Mr Pip, as she has done every day for many years. This picture was taken the day her cancer finally caught up with her and the decision was made to release her from the illness the magic pills had done so much to help. She poses, pensively, the dawn behind her, upon the sand she loved, as if aware she cannot struggle further; she is ready to call it a day; leaving her family behind, baffled by her loss. God bless you, dear Bailey: rest in peace and without pain at last.

 

A bit of radiant joy

20180119_081934Early Saturday morning, we were met at the end of our run by a bonny seal pup, resting on the beach between fishing expeditions. As the unaccompanied Kemo Sabe approached him, he turned and snorted, then returned to his laborious struggle towards the unhelpfully wave-less sea. Even when the water kissed his nose, he was reluctant to take to it, but there was no doubting he would be safer at sea than on land once the sun was up and the number of curious and interfering dogs running on the beach increased. Recent news reports from around the British coast have highlighted the plight of record numbers of seal pups – brought ashore by the wintry storms – where they’ve been troubled by the public and their pets. This has all too frequently resulted in pups being abandoned by their mothers.

20180119_082246.jpgDay by day we up here are unsure which season we are meant to be in, even though country-wide – and not too far south of us, either – the winter has been making its presence felt. On the ground here, in our little corner of north Northumberland, we were until yesterday afternoon’s bit of a blizzard snow-free, and all that excitement had completely disappeared by evening. Mostly, despite varying wind strength and direction, things remain calm, though every day is different and, prevailing over us, is Jack Frost. The intensity of the cold varies from day to day; it has been bitter here but, more often, the brightness of the sun is a joy and, this coming Wednesday, we are once again in for temperatures in double figures. And so the days rumble by, giving us a bit more light as they do so.

20180113_092949A few days ago on an undistinguished morning – certainly un-spring-like, the sky grey, a bearable chill in the air – one of our local blue tits stopped his back and forth from the nuts and fat balls and flew across to the nest box in which he was born. He sat at its entrance, comforted perhaps by happy thoughts, and pulled at a few tufts of retriever fur which Kemo Sabe had stuffed inside on top of last year’s bedding. He then paused for several minutes on his perch, poking his little head inside a couple more times.  There, in the depth of Winter, it was as if one tiny creature among countless others  could contemplate something distant yet fateful which we cannot begin to comprehend. Some glimmer of a future back and forth; as though rehearsing a part for which he is as yet un-cast. Truly, ‘the world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper,’ as someone famous once said.

The night and a thousand eyes

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Recent snowfall at Bamburgh: photo by Alan Leightley

The deep mid-winter is upon us and with it the utterly dark mornings, in which we habitually run along the beach. Even when the wind is extreme and the tide unusually high, as it has been this last couple of days, we negotiate its difficulties with careful confidence; we respect the wildness and know where we could seek shelter, if need be. No photograph could record the strange world of shadows that is currently ours, but this one shows our castle sprinkled with snow, as it was at the beginning of this week.

The recent spring tides coincided with a sharp decline in temperature, snow on the sand and hazardous ice on the rocks which form part of our route and which cannot be avoided. This has been a dramatic week weather-wise for the British Isles, with more snow in some areas than has fallen in many years. Here we get just a smattering but it has been icily cold. On the worst days, it would be folly to venture forth until it is properly light, mainly because the road to Bamburgh is treacherous. Nevertheless, whenever we possibly can – and that means most days – we enter the world early. We pull together (just the three of us in conditions like this), Barnaby watching and waiting for Kemo Sabe as she picks her way gingerly across the rocks; me, usually getting in the way, so devoted am I, but otherwise ahead of the game, always within ear-shot and always attentive to the whistle. Our high-vis jackets do their job well, and Kemo Sabe’s head torch can easily pick us up as we skip about.

We haven’t seen a sunrise in weeks. If we are lucky – that is, a bit late in setting off – and depending on the cloud cover, we will eventually see a marginal lightening of the southern sky as we draw to the end of our run. Such mornings are accompanied by a sky-full of stars, and magic moons, sometimes as big and as colourful as an orange. Today there was even a shooting star, pointing our way southward.  Usually though, utter darkness is all there is. And we are placed in it, the sea to one side, the sand beneath us and the dunes to our right. In Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, folk would know their way about their territory by listening to the rustling of the different trees and shrubs which mapped their countryside: the scratchy holly bush, the smell of the bay, the furriness of the evergreen. They had no eyes but saw well enough, and so do we. We feel the nearness of the sea and the tables of the tides by the variation in hardness of the sand beneath our feet. We hear the ferocity of the approaching waves and get on towards the rocks, before its too dangerous.

From the dunes pairs of yellow eyes occasionally peer down on us as we pass by; foxes, patrolling their territories beyond the castle, minding each other in their desperate hunt for food and watching us in silence, rather eerily as we pass.  Last week in the darkness one trotted in front of us, the whole width of the beach from the shoreline back up to the dunes, having found no carrion which would have helped to sate his appetite. This was another first for us and, respectfully, we held back, watching thoughtfully as this independent spirit made its way back into its secret world. We know there must be others out there, of whom we are unaware, not all of them foxes, either.

Signify this to the doctor

20171021_091654Tiny Nico’s skin problem is still very much under investigation, which has kept everyone busy over the last few weeks. Quite apart from regular visits to the vet (who calls this business a saga) to see the effect on his symptoms of different antibiotics, and subsequent medications, everything we eat has come under scrutiny and, as a result, we seem to have waited extra long for the bowls to be served up.  Feeding time is always complicated in our house, but it has become  still more deliberative now that sensitivity to something or other  – and it may well be food-related – is affecting Nico’s health.

20171021_091754.jpgAs far as the little fellow himself is concerned, he is as cheerful and full of beans as ever, though the return of the odd sore spot to the back of a paw means he is no longer with us on the morning beach trundle until we get to the bottom of all this. Now Autumn is here, he’s missing the excitement of completing our run entirely in darkness, but we greet him and Uncle NuNu at the end when we are all reunited, swathed in our fluorescent suits of lights, illuminated by Kemo Sabe’s head-torch. Apart from seeing one very pleasant holidaying husky a couple of times this week, we see nobody else at all, only the curlews crying at the shoreline, and we see them only with our ears, as it were.

20171021_091923 (3)What to give us dogs to eat has become a hot topic in the last few years and one on which Kemo Sabe finds herself frequently consulted, whether it’s about avoiding allergies, preventing weight gain or whatever. Innovative dog food manufacturers have cheerfully joined the grain/wheat/gluten-free/raw-food band-wagon  (perm any one from whatever angle you like) and many dog owners – perhaps most – now think seriously about what they put on our plates. Over all the many decades Kemo Sabe has been feeding dogs, only the great and original Newman Noggs ever suffered from a skin complaint, and that only temporarily as a young pup and it was easily treated. The Dickens Dogs have eaten widely and well. Every day we are given a variety of food; a mix of dry and wet; cooked and raw meat; complemented by raw and cooked vegetables – it’s quite a palaver! Now we are getting supplements as well: fish oils and sardines, things to keep our joints as well as our coats happy, too.

20171021_091638Nico is off the medication now and we all are curious to see what might flare up and when. For three years he has been perfectly well, without so much as a hint of allergy, but he this week had a skin test which will tell us much more about any allergens he has taken a dislike to. For what it’s worth, we all tend to think this is something to do with the summer flowering plants on the heath behind the castle. We await results: if infection isn’t involved, there has to be another way forward. In the meantime, it is almost lunch preparation time and I can barely control my anticipation. As she writes, I gaze up at the one I love most in all the world knowing she really does everything she can to keep us all on an even, healthy keel. Now, where’s my dinner?

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  . . .