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.

All nature has a feeling

20170716_101125[1]Everywhere we look are remarkable things. At the bottom of the front garden, in the black elder tree, right at Kemo Sabe’s eye-level, a perfectly pinkish-grey collared dove sits patiently on her nest, flattened against discovery. The hebe beneath the study window has burst into white spears in FB_IMG_1499806190300today’s full sun; the front sparrows – as we call them – use its protective labyrinth all year, to chat and shelter in. Solitary and honey bees search among its blooms, pondering where its scent is strongest. The tiny fir we moved to a sunnier spot beside the gooseberry; a specimen which once served as a Charlie Brown tree, one Christmas when we had little room for anything bigger – is sprouting nicely, now it has room to breathe and be itself at last, having emerged from the dark beneath the elder where only ferns and ground geraniums flourish. The rhubarb –  always a prodigious provider – is bold and brash, pulled regularly in order to keep the neighbours supplied with crumbles, puddings and pies. The blackcurrant bushes bend with fruit, bowl-fulls picked repeatedly but just as quickly replenished from Nature’s store. On the heath behind the FB_IMG_1499927845621castle, all kinds of wild flowers flourish: orchids and oxlips, cranesbill and such. Magical mushrooms burst into fluffy pompoms, perhaps teasingly concealing the danger which lurks within. We cannot name them, only admire. Across the mere, young herons gather as is their custom. They speak but little to each other, their silent stillness resonating with reflection on their solitary lives to come.  All around, the green life of change is visible. On days like today we can easily agree with Isaiah when he says:

the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

Blow the wind southerly

Newman and Barnaby AprilMay is nearly upon us and at last the wind has finally changed. After over a week in which Winter dug its claws firmly into us all again, all springtime activity has resumed in the bustling households of our sparrows, jackdaws and blue tits. However, this change for the better was not before we were attacked, on two consecutive days, by an aggressive Weimaraner unknown to us. He went for Barnaby first, and then me! I suppose we should be relieved that Kemo Sabe’s authoritative shouts of ‘No!’ as he barrelled into us and dug in to Barnaby’s back were insistent enough to weaken his resolve. Discipline and someone who knows what’s what are obviously unknown to him, whatever his problem is. Unfortunately, as has always been the case in such unfortunate circumstances, even after the first incident the owner made no attempt to prevent the second run-in, let alone intervene to stop her dog (and its companion) troubling us by putting it on the lead.

IMG_20170430_075027Our dear friend Bailey, pictured with us only this morning, has herself been seriously attacked on a number of occasions, mostly by the visiting dogs who are under-exercised at home and over-excited about being given free rein on the beach, by owners who care little about the consequences of both.  The family of other good doggy friends of ours put it well this week when they spoke of local dogs being under a lot of pressure from the tourist dogs. This week’s unprovoked attacks have certainly put me on my guard and I know for a fact that Barnaby is always on edge, watching for possible ambush from the dunes. We are, as a result, finding out more about an organisation called FIDO, ‘Fighting Irresponsible Dog Owners’ which gives advice – legal and otherwise – on how to deal with such people and their dogs; people who seem incapable (because obviously so unwilling) of securing their dogs to a lead, or considering the safety of others, let alone their own well being, should they find themselves investigated for having a dog dangerously out of control.

Still, the return of the first two pairs of house-martins greeted us at the end of yesterday afternoon’s walk and additional sand-martins were visible as well. Things are definitely on the up, nature-wise. As for me, I had my teeth professionally cleaned and polished this week – my third veterinary intervention this year. What have I done to deserve this, as someone famous once said? To finish, a silly bit of verse. Each morning, there comes a moment when Kemo Sabe is simply unable to get Newman to move. He is utterly transfixed, whether by a leaf, or a smell (which he so often is), and he digs his considerable heels into whatever surface he’s on with the strength of a steam roller. I imagine these to be his thoughts: ‘O blade of grass so green and bright/ I cannot see you in the night/ But now the sun is in the sky/ I cannot merely pass you by.’

Finally, we’ve been listening at every available opportunity to An Ancient Observer, the new CD from the wonderful Armenian jazz pianist, Tigran Hamasayan. Have a listen, and listen to it all – again and again! It helps to put things in perspective, as does Newman, of course.

Ordinary times

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If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

It’s a funny time of year; neither here nor there, if you like. Recent early morning temperatures have been all over the place. Over the weekend, crossing the rocks in the dark was utterly treacherous, requiring slow, deliberate and precise footwork, especially for Kemo Sabe who is two-legs-down on the rest of us and has Uncle NuNu on the lead (for reasons which will be obvious to readers of this blog). But on those icy days, crisp and clear, it was wonderfully bright daylight all the way from Bamburgh.

20170130_120334By contrast, this morning and last the leaden sky and drizzly darkness before grudging dawn were back again and, by midday, mist had swamped us.  After lunch, the sea  became increasingly tempestuous and had begun to swell, sending a beautiful red ball on to the sand where – being muzzled – I could do nothing about it. I guarded it as long as I could in the hope that Kemo Sabe would help me to add it to our collection but, for some reason, there was nothing for it but run to catch up the others. One of her regular kindnesses is to put these strange treasures in her pocket so we can play with them later at home; our favourite thing about storms is that in the aftermath we find the beach strewn with the lost and discarded playthings of so many dogs, but there are also other, greater wonders, like this lovely, sunny star whose remarkability, you might say, leads us on through the gloom to something out of reach.

20170118_154207Here we are on the second day of February, the Feast of Candlemas, which marks the formal end of the celebration of the birth of  Christ, in the ordinary time leading up to the next big penitential season. This is the day which commemorates the meeting of the old and the new in the Temple of Jerusalem long, long ago.  Today we stood before dawn at the foot of the sand-martins’ cliff, the rising tide pushing us against the rocks beneath their empty and cheerless holes. Empty and cheerless – for now. We  – who have lost another member of our human family this week but are shortly to welcome little Frederick on his first visit here – are blessed that the routine days stretch before us in this ordinary time as we watch and wait, live and breathe. And, if you seek some comfort, wherever you are reading this consider the weather on this day  and then consider the proverbial words above.

For further reassurance at this ordinary time of year, here is ‘The Charm’ by Rudyard Kipling:

Take of English earth as much

As either hand may rightly clutch.

In the taking of it breathe

Prayer for all who lie beneath.

Not the great nor well-bespoke,

But the mere uncounted folk

Of whose life and death is none

Report or lamentation.

 Lay that earth upon thy heart,

 And thy sickness shall depart!

It shall sweeten and make whole

Fevered breath and festered soul.

It shall mightily restrain

Over-busied hand and brain.

It shall ease thy mortal strife

‘Gainst the immortal woe of life,

Till thyself, restored, shall prove

By what grace the Heavens do move.

Take of English flowers these —

Spring’s full-faced primroses,

Summer’s wild wide-hearted rose,

Autumn’s wall-flower of the close,

And, thy darkness to illume,

Winter’s bee-thronged ivy-bloom.

Seek and serve them where they bide

From Candlemas to Christmas-tide,

 For these simples, used aright,

 Can restore a failing sight.

These shall cleanse and purify

Webbed and inward-turning eye;

These shall show thee treasure hid,

Thy familiar fields amid;

And reveal (which is thy need)

Every man a King indeed!

 

A new year and a new boy in town

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The 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. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.

                                                                                  from T S Eliot, ‘The Dry Salvages’ Four Quartets

It’s been an event-crammed couple of weeks, since we turned the page over to the new year. A lot has occurred but there’s been less time than ever to ponder on it properly.  No sooner had the festivities ended than I mysteriously pulled something in my right front leg (something I’ve done twice before) dodging about the dunes, as I habitually do each morning. I’m a brave little soul, not given to creating imaginary mountains where only molehills exist so, when I was unable to bear my own weight, no matter how I tried, Kemo Sabe  – at some physical cost  – came to the rescue and carried me to the car and then, when a day’s rest had made no difference, to the vet. It was the same old story, x-rays and painkillers, and indeed the same diagnosis: nothing broken or fractured; nothing that a few more days’ confined to barracks wouldn’t cure. And so it proved. Normal routines were resumed within a week but more drama was soon to come. Last weekend a potentially catastrophic tidal surge threatened the entire east coast of the country, bringing high tides which tore at the dunes, rearranging the sand and dragging rocks  – long since hidden – back up into view. Much further down the coast, in Suffolk and Essex, folk were expecting and preparing for the worst, abandoning low-lying coastal communities and taking shelter against potential flooding in schools and sports centres. Even here, cottages around Seahouses harbour were warned to expect an inundation. The wind we battled on the beach that Saturday was from the north-west but, though strong enough to streamline the ears, we’ve known it far worse. Nevertheless, one outing was enough  – at low tide – on the day of the surge. Despite all this, though, no harm was done, as Prospero well knew.

img_0874The northern blasts did, however, herald another kind of transformation in the person of the young miniature dachshund called Freddie. Lokmadi Frederick is one of Nico’s relatives and also has the look of him; he has gone to Edinburgh to befriend Nico’s sister, Tiggy, who lost her dear Pupkin just before Christmas. The joy of his arrival does so much to banish the sadness of Pupkin’s loss, without ever diminishing the reality of his existence. Like the storm which sweeps through, leaving scars upon the landscape, the presence of the lost endures. Freddie has much to learn and we have much to learn of him, this ‘baby figure of the giant mass /Of things to come at large’. We thank providence divine that the tempest abated in time for him to be brought north in safety. Another miracle: welcome little friend.facebook_1485027703455

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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:

Much of the hearing of it but little of the marking of it

20161118_071043In yesterday’s eerie pre-dawn light, with a ribbon of cloud running right along the horizon behind it, Inner Farne was transformed: our perspective on it altered, as though we saw it from above, surrounded by the sea, instead of set upon it, against the horizon – the way it actually looks, because that is the way things actually are. It took a goodly while to work out what was awry; why its dimensions and position were so changed. Bishop Berkeley would have been amused; or so Kemo Sabe said. While she pondered, we set about our routine exploration of the scents at the top of the beach, both shrouded and heightened by the extreme darkness the last vestiges of the night permits us before we set off towards Seahouses, and the strengthening rays of the sun. Truly it is indeed easy to imagine a bush a bear by night!

We anticipate the arrival in a month of the shortest day – our favourite day of the year –  while currently things are darker than ever and we leave for our trundle under a starry sky and crescent moon. No wonder we can’t see clearly. Yet, we muse, how many moguls of one kind or another have mistaken and misprized things this year, seemingly despite all the reflection in the world, the considered outpourings of the ablest minds, or most experienced analysts. So much noise, so little sense – or so it seems. All of which media-noise is so unlike dear Uncle NuNu, apparently deaf to Kemo Sabe’s repeated calls each morning; the same calls we all understand and respond to, and always have; he knows exactly what those noises mean; he hears them but does not mark them, as it were. We forgive him on account of the fairies, with whom he is away.

20161123_073348This sorry sight eloquently expresses the arrival of winter on the north east coast, first with Storm Angus and now with persistent zero temperatures. The sands are crisp with frost, the outdoor dog bowl is solidly iced over and Kemo Sabe simply cannot keep up with refilling the bird feeders.  Cold, enduring and profound, has tiptoed in the footsteps of the gale force winds which banked the sand in new dunes and forced a roiling sea to disgorge this mother and child high on the beach, having rung the life-force from them both. When first spotted, the mother seal was still watching her baby wearily through exhausted eyes, but she too gave up the fight lying beside her dead little one. This was our first sad sight of the winter months.

20161118_072949But life has to go on and, while the winds roar round, putting us all on edge, and the sparrows had to brave the terrifying gusts in order to build themselves up for another night huddled together in the hedges, and the cat flap closed against the north wind meant neither I nor Jeoffry could have our freedom, Newman had to make his important visit to the vet: after a whole day without food, and nearly twelve hours without a pill, he underwent his annual blood test to check how he and his liver are coping with the Epiphen he takes for his funny turns. The answer is: very well, as it happens. All except for his disinclination to pay any attention at all to commands the rest of us jump to obey. Like the media, he is in his own little world, where delightful lift-music prevails and ifs and ans are pots and pans.