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.

It’s that time of year again . . .

20150130_075839 . . . when the Trinity House ship ‘Galatea’ visits our north Northumberland coast, delving into and deepening the through-ways between the islands and checking the buoys which keep the shipping lanes safe. This splendid bark always seems to arrive out of nowhere, glorifying the murky morning with its blazing lights and keeping alarmingly close to the shore but, by the time we catch up with it and can try to capture the spectacle on camera, it has cut back out to sea like a spaniel following a scent. Perhaps tomorrow we will see it again, and imagine the crew breakfasting out there amidst the light-show before beginning their important duties for the day.

. . . when all around us the chill closes in. But, despite the weatherman’s doom-laden prognostications about snowfall, to which in a funny sort of way we’ve been looking forward as a novelty for our young charge, there has been none here.  Instead the sun has shone benignly and the wind been unremarkable. Inland and south of here snow has closed roads and airports but, once again, our magical coastline remains quiet and untroubled by such extremes – inexplicably protected like a magic land.

. . . when the dawn is earlier by the day, and our runs begin earlier too, giving us all an extra half an hour in which to honour the Great Spirit by our play and pondering; on wind-free days, as well, it is almost as if one can hear the snowdrops piercing the frost, and the gradual arrival of spring being numbered hour by hour, however distant it ultimately remains. Out in the garden Christopher Wren has been out and about quite regularly, eschewing his secret spaces for the titbits underneath the bird-table and feeders, darting under the ferns by the pond and even checking out his nest-box now and again.

20150130_075911 . . . when Crufts comes around, and the appearance of the goldies at Discover Dogs. This year young Nicodemus will join us on our trip away and no doubt fresh in everyone’s minds will be what his little presence has added to our relentless round of doggy life. To most people who haven’t had a dog before, the true nature of this turmoil comes as a truly astounding shock: the work involved, the intensity of feeling generated. No wonder I haven’t had much time to ponder; there’s been too much to do! My new routine of ecstatic ball retrieving on the beach has relaxed me a lot, and I feel happier in his enthusiastic company; as an enthusiast myself, I am surprised by how sedate it’s possible for a three-year-old to feel, though I can feel by how fondly she holds and talks to me that Kemo Sabe wants to reassure me and I know I must be patient as the little one matures. He puts on weight so slowly, being a tiny lad – about an ounce a week at most (note to those considering a Golden Retriever: Old Uncle Noggsy once put on seven pounds in a week). It’s that time of year again when corners of one kind and another are turned and, though it will be a while before daisies pied and violets blue are adorning the grass above the icy rocks we cross so carefully every morning, every now and then one can feel the hounds of spring catching up with us.

 

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.

Something about Jo

IMG_2079As we prepare for the tail-end of hurricane Gonzalo, the first strong winds to be predicted this Autumn, the sun is shining but, despite some gutsy gusts, we’re not too concerned as yet. On the beach this morning we ran towards Newman’s pool in the murk, the sun having another half an hour to lie-in before he needed to be up. Sand scudded across from Monk’s House, where the dunes decline and there’s no shelter to be had, but despite a recent haircut I feel warm and wonderful – no need to place my head upon the hearth as yet as it is unseasonably mild. Out on the islands, National Trust warden David Steel is battening down the hatches, and the growing seal pup population is leaning hard against the rising tide, even as I write.

But though we are led to fear and to prepare, and the news is full of dread, betrayal and pestilence, tiny chinks of glorious light are always visible: the goodness in a human hug, leftover casserole gravy – all rich, delicious vegetables and meaty mouthfuls – on our dinner, a bright blue sky above me as I race to catch the fig leaves as the wind blows them into the pond; the thought that someone smaller than me may soon be joining us; knowing the sand will be rubbed away from my eyes, that they will think of it before it troubles me.

IMG_2077Within his convoluted labyrinth, within his considerable demesne –  which stretches by way of lengthy tubing between two large ‘cages’, over six levels where he can rest, feed or doze as the whim takes him – tiny Jo sleeps:  downstairs today, in his enormous bed, directed by the same logic which day by day leads him to sort his food stores by size and quality within a tunnel, or move them round to suit the mood. Corn kernels, stripped from tiny dried cobs, shelled peanuts, sunflower seeds.  Tiny and perfect life form, blessed creature, be happy and content, cleaned and tended daily, you the smallest and, as some might say, the least of us. All is safely gathered in. A happy harvest festival of his own.

Wonders of the deep and life’s whirlygig

Basking sharkOut within the sound between the islands, a basking shark takes his ease, pootling about, mouth open, as the summer calm and warmth persist unseasonably. Andrew took this photo from his boat, incredulous at the sight of such an infrequent visitor to our normally cold coastal waters. Our gentle, gigantic friend has been lurking around for a couple of weeks now, delighted with the tranquility no doubt and the prolific plankton. We are all thrilled to welcome him and enjoy his company; stay as long as you like, we call to him.

20140921_073201Within the horrid pool two crabs are feasting on limpets, the empty shells of their prey cast aside like so much litter. Their antics catch my attention in the dim morning light and I in turn catch Kemo Sabe’s with my focused pondering : anything lurking there is notable, so weird and harrowing an atmosphere pertains. The mutability of the horrid pool fascinates us both.  The residual water is refreshed by most high tides but, despite this, its depths change colour disturbingly:  sometimes an oily blue, mysterious as the night; sometimes a purple; occasionally clear and clean – as today – revealing the little monsters at their meal. An exciting homely diversion and rare sign of life in what is otherwise a deadly, despondent reservoir.  Then, on our afternoon tramp, we see that the whirligig of time has brought in his revenges. Instead of limpet shells, the crabs’ carcases are now detritus, the backs torn from the bodies, the flesh eaten, probably by one of the many herons hunting round the rocks these days. Such is life. Short and sweet. Sad, nevertheless.

A fatally injured cat, white, pale grey and perfect, lies dead in the middle of the road near the dunes as we drive down to begin our morning run. Its expression is peaceful once it is moved, as though sleeping, to the pavement. Nine lives lived. On the beach, not far from the horrid pool, a young puffin, left over from the exodus which has stripped him of his friends, hobbles disconsolately into the safety of the sea, where nature intended him to thrive. He could not leave with the others and he will not survive long, injured as he is. We pass by, without upsetting him, commending his little soul to the Great Spirit. The geese are returning, croaking maniacally, heralding crispness in the air which must perforce arrive some time soon. Life and death, big and small. On and on, round and round we go. Ordinary and extraordinary.

 

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.