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.

 

Each shining hour improved

20160803_063436Plenty of ups and downs this week, and plentiful holidaymakers to witness them. Weather-wise, we’ve had a bit of everything (including this magnificent double rainbow early one morning – immediately followed by the torrential rain which drenched us all over the three miles home), and for the next few days more extreme tides than usual, crowding everything – including the rubbish – into a smaller portion of the shore.

20160805_064548We Dickens Dogs are out and about very early, or so others remark; we see things others may well miss, like Johnny Heron perching quaintly on Monk’s House, gazing thoughtfully in the direction of the wood which houses the heronry where he was born. Usually we see him on nearby Greenhill Rocks, peering hopefully at the fishy bits and pieces coming in with the tide. His reflective demeanour, as he gazes across the meadow with its waterfowl, way beneath him and the other side of the road, indicates a personality pondering on something bigger than the next meal. Well, this is my domain, it seems to say; I must make the best of it.

20160804_120742In the front garden, those who would wish to see what is there must get a lot closer to the glorious white hebe, now in full flower. This is the sparrows’ favourite resort, a capacious and welcoming labyrinth of branches and cover for them throughout the year; a reliable resting place both day and night. During the months when the days darken quickly, the 20160719_175917bush glows with twinkling, tiny, blue lights – as though the winter chill is singing out for joy. In August, though, the hebe is completely covered with long, white spikes over which all kinds of bees, solitary bumble bee species as well as honey bees, buzz with joy as they sip their fill of nectar. If you look closely, insects of all sizes are visible, too – verily down to Alexander Beetle – drawn to the intoxicating perfume of this generous and ebullient shrub. Everywhere in the heathland beneath the castle there are wild flowers: copious supplies of thrift, harebells, lady’s bedstraw, bloody cranesbill, meadowsweet, silverweed and harebell. The insects thrive, thanks to nature’s bounty and, it has to be said, despite the ravages of careless visitors, too often blind to the wonders upon which they walk; too lazy to pick up after themselves.

 

 

One season following another

20160609_173255Although the heathland meadow behind Bamburgh Castle is bejewelled with wild flowers of all kinds and though it is only the end of July, you can feel that summer is already preparing to move on – particularly when the weather’s dull or drizzly and rather sorry for itself – and the ebullience of the busy season is beginning to yield to the thoughtfulness of autumn, and that’s before August even begins. T S Eliot is right, about time past and time present; his words echo thus in our minds.

20160719_064455Last week’s sweltering heat, so very unusual up here, dissipated after a few days and fresh and fragrant air returned to residents unused to airless humidity. As normal temperatures resumed, signs of times changing were apparent all around.  While we set off at six for our morning run now that the school holidays are here, and the influx of holidaymakers makes even a coast as open and vast as ours feel crowded, you can’t help feeling as you run across the sand that everyone is living on summer’s borrowed time. Near Monk’s House on the beach, we even noticed an errant curlew skating overhead on its way back inland for a few more weeks, having, no doubt, had a cheeky look at the seashore he’d been missing since he took to the uplands a few months ago. Pause for thought. Though there are still plenty of puffins for the tourists to photograph out on the islands, the ones who choose to leave early for the North Atlantic will soon be gone and, gradually, the nesting colonies of guillemots, terns, kittiwakes and gannets will begin to decline. Though holidaying humans still have several weeks left to litter the shore with plastic gewgaws and unassimilated bags of dog pooh, the young sandmartins and housemartins are fledged and growing ever stronger, and it won’t be long before they abandon their aerial practices and begin their long trek south. In no time at all, things will be quieter all around.

20160609_174334

Things are packing up in the garden where, despite the ripening apples, foliage of all kinds is looking worse for wear. This year’s gulls have fledged and shifted, accompanied by a chaos of calling from the entire flock; the chimney breast, and the nesting material there, is now for the jackdaws’ taking; peace has returned for them at last, now the gull fledglings are busy tackling their various tests of flying the coast and foraging for food for themselves: a rude awakening, once the security of their adoring parents is withdrawn. So, while we enjoy long, long days, with regular flashes of the northern lights after bedtime, the light is gradually diminishing, day by day. And though we cannot see it, we can feel it, all around: though summer is here, it is already moving on.

Walking on water

20160105_092211Over the last month the northern part of our country has been inundated: literally.  Some unfortunate folk in the Lake District and Yorkshire have been flooded repeatedly; unimaginable devastation of lives and livelihoods which has left them reeling, as the rain continues to fall across the land.  This week Scotland is awash, and as I write this, rivers to the north and south of us are threatening to over-top their banks. Even here, in our little coastal corner of Northumberland, near Bamburgh, where the rain is never that bad, it is pouring as I write, down on to the cold, wet garden where the sparrows huddle for shelter. All over the Christmas period, thousands of people have been walking on water, their consciousness subsumed within this powerful and symbolic element. As someone famous once said:

Where is there an end of it, the soundless wailing . . .
Where is there an end to the drifting wreckage . . .
There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing . . .
To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage.

20160105_092230Though the forecast shows the rain will soon move over our little patch, these last few days we’ve had to forgo our morning run: the wind has simply been too strong, too relentless to contend with and the murk too persistent. Sea foam, thick, deep and extensive, has coated the beach and flown in our faces, causing Nico to jump out of its way. Huge tree-trunks have beached themselves as the giant waves receded, seal pups have died of exhaustion and been dragged  back to the depths under cover of darkness. Across huge stretches of the smooth, shiny sand, the froth extended, making us feel as though we were walking on water.

Tomorrow the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates Epiphany, which is not  – as it has become in the western tradition – the coming of the Three Kings , but the coming of the Holy Spirit on the occasion when Jesus was baptised by John the Forerunner in the waters of the River Jordan. Tomorrow, throughout the world, Greek Orthodox communities will follow the priest to bless their nearest river or stream. For some, they won’t have to move very far. While others across the world watch their cattle and crops die and their forests and houses burn, because of drought, longing for the waters to fall, we long for everything to be in balance again.The waters of life – giving and taking – transforming everything.

 

Lights, camera, Johnny

IMG_0168Today is the fourth anniversary of the passing of Uncle Johnny. As if in awe of this terrible day, the winds have been blowing ferociously for the past twelve hours, literally threatening to raise the roof and keeping us all awake with worry, and the skies are as leaden and unpromising as they have been all week. This is the worst weather we have had up here in the north east since our Johnny died. Moreover, we are promised yet another twelve hours of this frightful gale, which has brought the railways to a halt, closed the A1, raised the waters in creeks and rivers alike, depositing it on the fields and golf courses, and kept the lobsters uncollected in their pots at the bottom of the sea.

The picture above shows clearly how different things were the day Uncle Johnny went from us: here he is on the left, wearing his jaunty but ill-fitting Barbour waterproof, and barking in joy at the blinding December sun which greeted him, Newman and Barnaby on the beach that morning. Despite the pain in his tummy, despite the slowness of his gait, he stretched his neck in joy as he always did and, when he returned home to tell me about his walk – I being then a boy of only a few weeks – the sun shone on me too. After all, he said, he had a couple of Alan’s home-made beef pies to look forward to, and a lovely sleep on the sofa before Lucy the Vet was due to come; so cheer up, everyone, it’s a sunny, wonderful day!  Uncle Johnny, like Mr Dick, always set us right.  Whatever the weather.

IMG_0227Another member of our family died last week, so another funeral will soon be taking place. No matter what death and the wind are doing, though, we hold firm to the fact that tomorrow is the beginning of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, when from the one light many more are generated; it is also the feast of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, on the celebration of whose day many cultures give and receive their seasonal presents in recognition of his generous goodness. We all keep in mind, though it is often hard to do, that though illness, misery, loss, division, cruelty and darkness of all kinds stalk our days, goodness and light endure and increase, and that ever nearer comes that miraculous turning point in the calendar when the sun moves closer to us again: when symbolism and faith are rewarded in actuality. And in our hearts we remember our dear Uncle Johnny, of blessed memory, whose love of shortbread fingers and the day he stole them makes us laugh still, and whose love for us burns as deeply as ever.

 

Berwick-upon-Tweed to Whitby

20150926_065912The sea is tentacular today, the kraken stretching his arms in restful joy out towards the Farnes as hardly a breeze moves above the surface. And thus it was predicted and thus, it is predicted, it will remain for the next few days. Things are settled, and high pressure apparently reigns in Dogger (where under the sea, a forest shows there once was land). How reassuring; like a blessing!

Every morning, at 5.20, we listen to the Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio 4.  There is something almost prayerful about this routine. Overnight, the boffins at the Met Office have prepared detailed information about the waters surrounding the British Isles and, as the day’s broadcasting begins on Radio 4 proper, the listening nation looks out from the land towards the sea and, in its imagination at least, considers those who must contend with the vicissitudes of the sea.

400px-UK_shipping_forecast_zones
Map from Wikipedia

The endless miles of the watery main are divided into shipping areas, with names like Bailey, Trafalgar, Malin, North and South Utsire, Fitzroy. You can learn a lot from them not just about the wind you’re likely to be battling on the beach, and how far out you will be likely to see to the tankers advancing towards Norway but also about the geography and history of these islands and, with a little bit of extra work, the history of our relationship to the places just beyond our shores. We all attend to this daily liturgy with especial interest, particularly when it comes to Cromerty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger:  for there we find our little coastal community on the cusp of Forth and Tyne, once so heavily fished by massive fleets but now mostly the preserve of the lobster pot brigade.

The Shipping Forecast is a national treasure, often selected by castaways on Desert Island Discs; its ritualistic rhythms, as well as its inherent importance to the thousands who must go to sea, is both homely and reassuring on the one hand and curiously thrilling, on the other, particularly when gales are predicted and our minds race to those who must decide whether to turn for home or stick it out in the hope of a bigger profit and more food on the table. For us, today will be settled, with a variable low wind, mainly from the warm south and visibility is set fair. Who could object to that?

If you would like to hear the forecast broadcast this morning, when it was still dark up here in Northumberland, please go to this Radio 4 web page:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06d259k

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.