So much has happened throughout the world, so many lives have changed irrevocably, in the week since this strange picture was taken on a quiet, sunny morning in the north east, despite the rain and cloud covering so much of the rest of the country. Uncle Jonny told us about what happened during the total solar eclipse of 1999, when there was darkness mid-morning across the south of England, dusk came early and the birds were silenced by the wonders of the cosmos. But this time, though we waited patiently for a wonder – my first eclipse experience – it turned out to be only partial indeed: so fleeting an alteration to normality that we were pressed to countenance it. At the moment of maximum effect for us, the Rolling Stones were beginning ‘Gimme Shelter’ on Radio 4, which always creates a tingly mood, and as the sun moved up further in its daily arc, this strange image was captured on the camera. There was a gentle quietening about the bird feeder, and a feeling of the afternoon among us, but all too soon the blazing light resumed and went upon its way. Here below, we picked up our routines – resuming my sleep at Kemo Sabe’s feet, tiny Nico on Uncle NuNu’s tummy, Jeoffry hugging Barnaby’s side. ‘Oh, a storm is threatening my very life today’.
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.
. . . 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.
. . . 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.
As 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.
Within 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.
On yet another dank and dimpsy morn, I cannot forbear but to begin with a quotation from a novel which follows me round rather more than most spaniels. Day after day recently, as we all began our routines, I felt I was moving within the text provided by my name-sake. As Pip recalls:
It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs; hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade. On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy; and the marsh-mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village – a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there – was invisible to me until I was quite close under it. The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me. This was very disagreeable to a guilty mind. The gates and dykes and banks came bursting at me through the mist . . . The cattle came upon me with like suddenness, staring out of their eyes, and steaming out of their nostrils, “Holloa, young thief!” One black ox, with a white cravat on – who even had to my awakened conscience something of a clerical air – fixed me so obstinately with his eyes, and moved his blunt head round in such an accusatory manner . . .
Yet I – as we say round here in a particular tone of voice – have done nothing wrong! Nevertheless, the concentrated stare the cattle gave us challenged Newman’s inordinate consumption of seaweed (which had made him boke over the weekend) and Barnaby’s crafty downing of slate (which does nothing for his digestion).
Over the past few days our part of the coast has been coated in this swirling and persistent mist, which has come and gone only in intensity, sometimes moving with exceptional speed and at others creeping slowly up on you, like a phantom out a-haunting. Yesterday afternoon the wind batted it across the mere, creating will-o’-the-wisps of the terns and ducks dangling on it. As I write, it has enveloped us again, not quite a London pea-souper as it’s entirely the wrong colour, but bringing that quiet resolution to the moment in which mystery thrives and dark deeds get done. All in all, we like what it does to our world: there’s a chill in the air but a gentleness too, as though the ordinary things have been wrapped in cotton wool, from which they peer, reminding us how special they are.
This morning, before the mist encroached still further, Kemo Sabe captured a few moments on the beach, as you can see here:
Today, after a few days away from pondering, wandering free beside the byways of Stepney Green, bathed in warm sunshine, the chilly north east to which we have returned urged us not to get ahead of ourselves, to wrap up again, re-light the fire and turn our minds to the footfalls of history. We have heard many familiar voices, emerging from abandoned courts behind historic churches, from under cobbles where cabbage leaves were once strewn – things that have hardly altered at all, and others gone without a trace, except the imprint which time always makes and which cannot be eradicated.
Under the circumstances, it’s a really good day to turn again to Uncle Jonny, our dear Jack, and the love he bore us. Let him speak for us today about a glorious past. Regular readers will know what a legacy he left us – we who knew and loved him. Here he is, mud-besplatted, in his prime, many many years ago – about the same age as Newman is now. Jack’s thoughts came to him on an ordinary day, made extraordinary for him by the brilliance of the light and warmth which flooded into his heart when he entered Nunhead Cemetery for his daily perambulation. As we grow older it often becomes more difficult to express our deepest feelings, so here is a snapshot from Jonny’s favourite album, a testament to love, joy and the Dickensian belief that something good will always turn up.
Jack’s Poem About Spring
sun on the cemetery
sun on my golden face
my smile a ray
broadening like footprints across my Mummy’s heart
bright like a living daffodil
another season’s yolk
for me to suck the juice from
the dew gone
(Taken down for me on 21 March 2000)
Who’ll be chief mourner?
‘I,’ said the dove,
‘I mourn for my love . . .’
Today the news is justifiably full once again of the catastrophic weather conditions which are currently afflicting this country. Someone or other mentioned in the papers that in fact things are not so bad really, and that what folk have been going through isn’t a major disaster, because as yet no lives had been lost in the waters or wind. Well, here on a sunny rather bracing Thursday – windy yes, but nothing special for up here; where it’s rained really not that much over the last six weeks and the seas haven’t been that remarkable – you can see a little life that has been lost, our friend the herring gull. His natural beauty, the miracle of his lustrous feathers, even on a sandy plain, moves me to thought and brings me to his side. It makes me ponder the countless birds brought down in these biblical floods; the starving thousands of garden birds, cut off from their food supplies. I can only barely imagine the terrifying confusion of the creatures of the underworld – mice, rats, moles, badgers, voles of all kinds – drowned where they lie before they can even think of trying to run from the homes they thought their havens. What will become of us, the onlookers cry? What does the future hold? Is this the autumn storm, the winter thaw, a spring deluge? The world’s turned upside down. In my warm and snuggly bed, I know that more is coming, that more little souls will die. Who knows what lies in store, for any of us?
Ten days or so have passed without my pondering aloud. My amanuensis and I have been elsewhere, throwing ourselves on the kindness of strangers and, when it comes to the weather, caution to the wind. This lovely picture illustrates Jack Frost’s handiwork along the lanes of Suffolk, adorning gorse bushes and spidery homes with his glistening crystal thread. Like some wonderful fisherman, he captures nature in his nets, holding it fast until the sun sets it free.
But unseasonal warmth and rain of all kinds all too soon replace the odd icy morning we’ve enjoyed this winter. There has been very little beauty, just a preponderance of damp and drizzle. Up in the extreme north east we’ve been luckier by far than those in the south of the country, as I’ve frequently noted. Day after day we’ve watched the news and gasped at cottages transformed into granges on the ancient flood plain around Avalon.
Here is the view from Snape to Iken, down the coast in Suffolk from where the floods have been most devastating in that region. The tide is out, the quiet is profound, pierced only by the cry of the curlew and chatter of the gulls. In the distance, beside the ancient anchorage where St Botolph drew up his coracle and staked his claim in Redwald’s land, is the place he made holy, still dripping with meaning to this day. The church is always open: always.
All of the Dickens Dogs are presented there when we are pups; shown the silence and the shelter from the rain, which is always falling, as it is today; whether tempestuously, as it was this morning, or tenderly, gently, as it is as I write.
Here I am, a little sand-blasted, resting on the sofa just before I started writing this. We had a wonderfully lengthy run this mornng, as insurance against another bout of appalling weather which is due later on today. Although it’s been a peaceful week, free of visits and outings and dashing about, weather-wise we have endured the strongest winds in our experience up here and they have certainly taken their toll, even on one of our chimney pots. On the beach we found the body of one of the family of swans from the mere the other side of the road from the dunes. Buffeted beyond belief, driven down despite its wide and wondrous wings, it was still too puny to withstand the forces sent against it; exhausted, out of control, an ungainly and dramatic fall had shattered its beauty and broken its body in two. I could not resist carrying the snow-covered head gently in my mouth for an exhilarating couple of minutes and considered hiding it in the dunes, as I do with tennis balls: such is the pride of spaniels, for whom the shooting field is always more than a collective memory. I soon forbore to run, and began to ponder. This poor creature was probably one of this year’s babies, of which there were three, now indistinguishable from their parents. Day by day we would see them swirling around the mere, sometimes rustling in their nest-site, always within sight of each other as they feed on the neighbouring crops, undisputed aristocrats among all other water creatures. Content with their lot, they are a close-knit family. Or, rather, they were. Now that nature has dealt them a terrible turn how, I wonder, do they account for their loss? Are they as reflective as we, pondering on the changing colour of our landscape? Yesterday morning, a windless respite from recent drama, the remaining four flew in an effortful arc over our heads: it was just after dawn and the horizon was streaked with blue and peach as the foursome breasted the dunes, way above the body of their dead relative, and drove on towards the castle, in effortful flight. We watched in silence, hearing their cries: they said it all.
. . . remember the rainbow’s promise told. After yesterday’s massive storm, very much our own it seems, this morning has at last brought peace, a sea far less furious and a gradually brightening sky. Overhead now, where Jonny’s wonderful rainbow was just now, there are Simpsons’ clouds and things look settled and feel calm. Sparrows can drop down and dig in to their bread box as the whim takes them today; no more the gobbled bits and pieces snatched in the driving rain, as and when the gusts allowed, yesterday. Theirs is a tough life, but it is a free one, and they have each other to warm themselves against and moan to when they need a friend. Shortly before daybreak we looked out from the sands on to a grey and still-rolling sea, its white horses charging towards us. I thought about where in all that water the shiny orcas are and wondered whether any might ever – please, o please – come our way, dancing along us as we run by the dunes. We saw in a programme last night how decades ago the first few of these lovely creatures were captured for commercial exploitation: an idea patently ridiculous as well as morally indefensible from the word go. One of the hunters reflected shamefully on his participation in what he now considered the most heinous act of his life, helping to procure intelligent mammals for commercial exploitation and training. It upset and worried me to see devoted babies captured and confined, taken without a thought from grieving mothers – a practice repeated still as breeding proceeds in captivity. They brought a new kind of joy to me: their splendid sets of rounded teeth; their triangular pink tongues; the evening-dress shininess of their bulky bodies. Their massive brains. All cabined in puny watery trenches, patronised and sentimentalised, without a true friend or relative in the world. No wonder their tempers erupt; no wonder, as people weirdly say, they can turn nasty. The true wonder is that mothers bereft of their little ones, mothers who have wailed across the pool confines into the ocean depths all night, still come up smiling day after day. A couple of days ago we all saw the common dolphins by the rocks; just a moment or two of magic, and all we are likely to have for a while, too, until we are fortunate enough to be visited again. We must make do with rainbows and wish the orcas well – wherever they are – and dig deep for our own journey, praying for as much emotional intelligence as they.