St Cuthbert’s island: a thousand acres of sky

Photo by John S Turner WikiCommons
Holy Island of Lindisfarne by John S Turner WikiCommons

The sheer magnificence of the beginning of this week’s weather – sheer, clear sunshine, summer at winter’s door, the sun’s rays on our backs from dawn till dusk – has been a complete joy and our spirits have soared in gratitude. Only last week, after I’d posted my previous piece, as if in retribution the calm I’d been talking about was shattered by two days of the worst north winds we’ve endured in three years and, what is even worse, not a mention of it or its intensity on the national weather forecast – as ever.  It really as if the extreme north east has no existence for the rest of the country, as we batten our cat-flaps and protect Nicholas from being blown sideways as he toddles out into the garden for a wee.

Then things changed and, as quickly as the wind arrived, after battering us constantly for well over twenty-four hours, it dropped and an early July settled in January’s place. In celebration we ventured forth across the causeway to Lindisfarne, careful to note the safe crossing times, close by the poles which mark the ancient pilgrims’ footpath from the mainland to the island. There we careered through the dunes until we emerged on the north side of the island near the Snook, where low tide had left us miles and miles of empty sand to run on. Joy and over-excitement abounded; care was taken lest young Nico find a rabbit-hole he fancied and follow his nose down it like Alice but he proved sensible and obedient, always keeping everyone in view with that cheeky, intermittent sideways glance of his.

Lindisfarne is one of Northumberland’s ‘thin’ places, where heaven and earth mix freely in a magic water-colour of thought and feeling. Over thirteen hundred years ago St Cuthbert came from Melrose in the Scottish Borders to be Bishop in this place, and though the priory itself is but a physical ruin now, emotionally and spiritually much medicine thrives there still. Twice every day Lindisfarne is cut off from the mainland. Reaching it is always special, as though the sea’s encroaching and drawing back has cleansed one’s path. None of us would dream of running off in such a holy place, guarded by such natural magic.

As the world turns upside down . . .

IMG_2363What a week it has been.

The depths of winter are expressed up here by incredibly varied weather; until recently it’s been peaceful, with splendid dawns, quiet days and starry nights, often when other parts of the country are beset by rain and raucousness.  Over the last ten days or so, however, the wind’s been knocking on our door much more frequently and we have had to be on our toes as things change, sometimes quite violently. Only yesterday, twenty-four hours after we had to abandon the beach because of the gales, stillness, calm and clear skies greeted us. High winds and foul weather were predicted overnight, though, so our hearts sank, our morning run looking unlikely. As it turned out, however, things were what we’d call normal, with a bright sky, a brisk wind but gusts which were quite manageable for us all, even for those of us fairly close to the ground.

As the day has worn on, however, the storm has intensified and outside now it is squally 20150105_080516and wretched, as we found on our afternoon outing. The sea is charging towards the land, white wave after white wave, across a disappearing expanse of sand whose swirling grains blind as you criss-cross the beach. Tomorrow’s run looks very unlikely. But who knows? We take each day as it comes, eyeing the dire BBC national weather forecast with scepticism until we see what the new dawn actually brings, as our part of the coast has its own little micro-climate. It is one aspect of life up here with the Dickens Dogs which helps to comfort and secure us, despite everything going awry elsewhere.

20150115_123216Since Nicholas’s arrival at the end of November, routines have been paramount, and he is learning well what is expected of him. I have received a couple of bonuses: a daily chew for me alone to enjoy after supper and a daily extra outing with Kemo Sabe – my heart will surely burst, so much joy is now mine – in which I charge around chasing and retrieving my beloved ball, faithfully returning it, over-enthusiastically and noisily. This new routine obviously has something to do with the arrival of young Nico (whom I secretly think of as The Long Ranger), who takes up a good deal of everybody’s attention. Uncle Newman, being more mature and bigger-hearted than I, simply doesn’t mind and patiently smiles as the infant chews on his tail. He is settled and secure; gradually Barnaby and I are uniting round him, as our little pup grows in our hearts.

 

 

 

‘It was Christmas Day in the workhouse . . . ‘

IMG_2340I have had little time to post recently: there’s been so much to do, with our new family member’s routines adding to those already in place – four more meals a day, endless trips into the garden to build on the relentless house-training that’s needed and everything else a tiny puppy needs in these first vital months of a new life. And then of course, there is the time of year, with its own demands for food on the table and logs to be gathered. But today, Christmas Day, Kemo Sabe and I can pause and ponder – at last.

IMG_2322In two weeks, young Nico has put on forty-five grams, and his neck has strengthened sufficiently for him to graduate to a proper cat collar, even if it does have little silver crowns, making him look like a Romanov prince. If this picture looks familiar, be assured it is new; compare the two to see how he has grown! Nico has now successfully attended all his puppy parties at the vet’s, where he discharged himself with honour and won the affection of an intelligent little boy whose Westie played gently and won Nico’s trust. Having yesterday had his final vaccination, within a week Nico will be out and about, though carefully guarded by us all no doubt and only an arm’s length from the luxury of being carried down to the sea, where we can show him our best things. What will he make of them, we wonder, what someone famous once called ‘the brilliant smell of water, the brave smell of a stone’?

IMG_2306Today he joined us in tearing apart the wrapping paper we all so enjoy, and shared the Lily’s Kitchen Christmas biscuits with their tangy turkey and cranberries, cinnamon and herbs. I am seeing him more generously now, aware that Kemo Sabe still leans on me for steadfastness and good sense; that she values my comradeship, obedience and fearlessness, not to mention my sense of humour. Above, you see us after the worst of the detritus had been cleared, the little one in his favourite spot at Uncle NuNu’s side, various creatures of the forest and woodland (rabbit, badger, gorilla) scattered around. His fragility and neediness still frighten me, though, and I know I must be more mature, as time will make me.

403px-Anodorhynchus_hyacinthinus_-Disney_-Florida-8
Photo by Hank Gillette from WiKipedia

On Monday’s Tweet of the Day: World Birds on BBC Radio 4, we learnt about the once highly-endangered Hyacinth Macaw, a parrot of stunning magnificence which can be found in Brazil’s Pantanal Conservation Area. We love parrots  – their intelligence, their wonderful feet and footwork, the daintiness of their demeanour, their beaks – and though we would have loved to home one, we know that it is cruel to keep them unless you have them from childhood and can be with them all their lives and make them emotionally secure. Our little blog has at least one loyal reader in Brazil, so far away from us in Northumberland, and we send a special thank you to you today, this special day of celebration throughout this torn and troubled world. Christmas is a time when, traditionally, it is said the animals speak. We Dickens Dogs raise our voices to our loyal followers, few though you be. Happy Christmas, peace and good health be with you all! And as Mr Dickens himself writes, ‘God bless us, everyone!’

Works of wonder

450px-Puglia_Bari6_tango7174
Effigy of St Nicholas in Bari Photo from WikiCommons

This morning’s dawn was one of the most extraordinarily beautiful we have ever experienced. In terms of thermometers, it was the coldest morning so far this season, but because it had been so dry the last couple of days, the frost lay sugary and free, crisping the sand beneath  my paws in a way which was new for me. To the east, the sun played games beneath the horizon, producing a light-show almost unreal in its range of peach, Titian-blue and grey; where the sea met the sky, far far away, a low range of cloud extended unbroken, like a foreign land newly uncovered overnight; vapour trails from several planes dragged graffiti across the sun’s palette. Unsurprisingly, the moon hovered huge and high, unwilling to depart, staring straight at the sun across from above the castle to the islands, where the warden has now shuttered the windows and cleared off for the winter.

IMG_2220At home, young Nico (he of the velvet underneath) was resting in his crate after a plate-full of fresh mince. This morning was the first I sought him out for companionship and earned a treat for my trouble. Today is the feast of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, so it is our little friend’s name day. The residents of Bari, where the saint is buried, carry his effigy into and out of the sea every year on his feast, reliving the journey Nicholas made from Turkey, his homeland. The gift-giving of Christmas lies within his aegis, though so far removed from the world he knew.

IMG_2196Nico’s world is as yet small but its wonders daily astound him, even so. Uncle Nunu’s furry feathers fascinate him and already tiny tunnels under benches in the garden constitute a draw for the little digger. So vulnerable, as are we all; so in need of protection, like the rest of us. Be amazed by the wonders which lie all around: see them, and feel blessed and reach out for help to those who shield us.

Back in the saddle

20141118_080615This is sunrise over the very spot where Kemo Sabe fell yesterday – an astonishing burst of light, as comforting as egg, blessing our morning routine. While the shot was being taken, we three stood still beside the trail of hidden rock which did for her in the murk and nastiness of a morn from which the sun had apparently fled, and with it our hope. One can hardly credit it, but it was only yesterday.  Yet today the sun is clear, big and bright as August ninepence, the air warm and the wind resting in some cave somewhere, getting its breath back I suppose, until summoned forth again by the whirligig of time. Being a small spaniel whose life and heart are full, I know that good follows bad, light follows darkness: that there were steak pies for us all at dinner time in honour of Barbaby’s feast day and fresh salad leaves for Jo, when last night he eventually climbed out of his nest as we were on the way to ours. We must keep faith and think of the seal babies basking on the islands, and tiny Nicholas growing and growling and greeting his myriad relatives in the joy of such newness of life.

Rocks, hard places and paving slabs

20141104_122931Today Kemo Sabe began our day by tripping on a small rock concealed beneath the wind-swept sand near the horrid pool and falling onto another hard place, which hit her in the chest. Behind us, the boiling sea roared on in a truly Byronic way; sea-foam blew in all directions, the wind whistling round the headland while Mr Sensitive, aka Newman, continued to tie his lead in knots, unconcerned by the unfolding drama. But Mr Barnaby Sensible and I rushed to give comfort and get her to her feet. It was an inauspicious start to Barnaby’s fifth birthday, particularly as only shortly before she had protected him from the consequences of his own over-enthusiasm by throwing behind her after a couple of half-hearted throws the yellow ball the thrilled birthday boy had just found on the deserted wintry beach.

We Dickens Dogs are all in a sense like children. Cared for, guided, protected – sometimes from ourselves; we are so lucky to have those who love us and how fearful we are when we are reminded of their vulnerability. Older, not necessarily wiser (both Barnaby and dear old Uncle Noggsy have a seaweed obsession), with this landmark birthday Barnaby leaves the foothills of a dog’s life behind.  To me, he and Uncle Noggsy are the elders. At three, I have a long way to go, though my recent portrait indicates the mark of experience, I feel. It is an age before Jo the Hamster is one and tiny Nicholas is still so small and so far away that we can hardly believe in him yet: the little toe of our great assembly. After our breakfast Kemo Sabe began dachshund-proofing the garden against young Nickleby’s arrival, sinking paving slabs beside the fence to keep him in and the badgers out. Something new for us all to learn, having survived to live another day.

 

 

Somewhere – and someone – new

Remember, remember, the 5th of November?/Gunpowder, treason and plot.

IMG_2144It is Guy Fawkes Night, and a soundtrack of exploding shells has put us all on edge. We are pushing together around Kemo Sabe’s chair, alert to the frightening screams which are rocking what is usually such a peaceful time of night. Beyond our homestead, out towards the islands, flames prance ferociously up into the darkness from a truly enormous bonfire which has been burning for well over an hour now. It is all very disturbing, and it is hard to see what pleasure people gain from it all.  It was, after all, originally a celebration of anti-Catholic fervour, long-outdated but still enacted at the culmination of Bonfire Night in the Sussex town of Lewes, where an effigy of the Pope is burned and a crowd of 80,000 cheers at what they take as fun. Yes, it’s a funny old tradition but, among many communities, one which has lost its focus as the very name of Guy Fawkes recedes into oblivion. For most dogs like us, however, explosions of various decibel levels remain an inescapable part of this time of year, the frolics of Hallowe’en now the more usual excuse for fire and brimstone.

IMG_2145Pondering on the flames and the fear flowering in the breasts of wild things has distracted me from reflecting on our extraordinary day out recently. The countryside was flat, fertile and stretched far, far into the distance, the roads prepared by legions long ago and, before retracing our steps into the encroaching darkness from which earlier we had emerged, there was a completely delicious cappuccino ice cream and a manic run on a deserted beach at Cleethorpes. You never know where your life is going to take you; that one day you will gaze into the North Sea – mare nostrum, if you like – from a different angle, beneath endearingly rusty instruments of innocent fun and gaze down the estuary towards the Humber forts at its mouth. The Greenwich meridian passes through the town, linking us as we sat on the prom with the Dickens Dogs’ former home, and a signpost points to the North Pole, a mere two and a half thousand miles away. Thank you for having us, little town, on this special day; you have your history, as do we all.

For sleeping within the coils of his closest relatives, we left a tiny new boy inland, awaiting our return to his rural birthplace when he is ready to join us for a life-changing journey in a few weeks’ time.  Nicholas:  a name at last. He has much to learn, like his namesake.