The weather up here has been appalling, ever since yesterday afternoon when the squally wind got up and bursts of violent rain began to hit us, both driving from the north – the worst direction of all. This is an epic storm. In keeping with the pathetic fallacy, turbulence is everywhere: the cat flap blocked overnight; a cold blast driven through our kitchen where warmth from the range is usually constant; the morning run abandoned perforce; that feeling of impending doom pervading everything. Out on the islands, the wardens are worried about the safety of the baby seals, so mountainous are the seas which are obscuring land. With neither electricity nor running water on Inner Farne life is always harsh for the National Trust workers but in conditions like these it is frightening, as the fear within tightens its grasp on the guts and the claustrophobia of helplessness intensifies. Sometimes they are stranded out there for weeks at a time, reduced to a few bars of chocolate to get them through. Here, battling as we do against the elements in our own little House of Shaws, dismissed in half a sentence by the BBC radio forecast, we focus on a private need for fortitude and patience, that most mature of virtues. Somewhere deep within the bushes, our little sparrow friends are holding fast with locked knees, longing no doubt to feed once again on the various provisions they expect to find. Where do the chunky wood pigeon hunker down, so proprietorial and stately? Unable to move the world on one jot, or extend a life one day by worry, we all busy ourselves by leaning hard and cuddling up. Good that the feeders – with their nuts, nyjer seeds and fat balls – are swinging in waiting. Good that the bread has been crumbed, ready to be put out when the wind abates. Good that more logs were delivered and despatched into the store early yesterday morning, before the chaos came – it was never predicted by anyone. Good that we are warm and dry and the new roof has passed its first test; that we have a full mixer bin and the butcher will have new jellies for us today. Good to have decided to stay put, there being strength in numbers, when all one can think of is the past and the future seems so uncertain. In circumstances like these, everywhere else seems so far away from our little corner of the world but while they are here with us, there is nothing to fear. As someone famous once wrote:
When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian’s nose looks red and raw
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-whit, tu-who: a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
Without bad weather, we would never be able to enjoy a fire!
That was our experience upon waking in our warm beds this morning and indeed upon our run towards Bamburgh, where the particular peace was almost palpable, as this picture portrays. Whatever the south of the country had been going though, we had had none of it. In fact the night had been sprinkled with gorgeous stars, the air clear and quiet, and the dawning – well, you can see what it was like. Yet the BBC tells us that from Cornwall to East Anglia there are no trains; that at least two unfortunates have been killed by falling trees; that there has been flooding, damage to houses, lives lost at sea and in freak explosions. It is all true and it has mattered: what doesn’t matter is whether the wind and rain was slightly more or less intense than the experts suggested they might be; or indeed whether all this has more or less significance because it affected the south rather than the north. For now that the calm after the storm is beginning to descend, we hear the twittering in the eaves, and gossipy sparrows are complaining about whose suffering is more worthy, and indeed whether the soft southerners shouldn’t toughen up and take things in their stride a bit more, as we do up here – where the wind rages fiercely frequently and no one further south neither knows nor cares. What use, I ponder, is such kibitzing? Today a nice Hungarian lady, carrying her first baby inside her, visited the house; she was full of warmth and interest in an old man’s needs even though he was as yet a stranger and a foreigner to one born a thousand miles away upon the plains. What a joy! Cockney and Scot, Magyar and Northumbrian (not at all the same as Geordie, mind!): just like the Dickens Dogs and me – pulling together, into the wind, trying our best to get where we have to go; prepared for the worst and hoping for the best.
Here I eventually see and ponder the passing in front of Inner Farne of the Trinity House vessel, Galatea, setting off for a day’s work cleaning buoys around the islands and Lindisfarne, the Holy Island. Isn’t it peaceful (except for me – sorry!)?
Yesterday was a big day for me: I had more visitors to the blog than ever before! Being an innocent in this business, it is always exciting to see if anyone has read – let alone liked or commented on – anything I’ve put out there and I’m very pleased to get any response at all. This little spaniel writes for his own delight, in order to get ideas straight inside his little blue and white head; if other readers find my musings worth a look, that’s just wonderful; especially wondrous to see are the various flags of my readers’ homelands and wondering just what someone in Brazil or Slovenia has made of my life in this isolated corner of England. Whether it’s a shipwrecked squid or a sun fallen from the skies, questions of life and death abound, crossing continents and making some sort of universal sense. Every day is different; expressing every thought a challenge, wondering whether the thread will lead me from the labyrinth or face to face with the Minotaur itself.
Those who know about these things predict a really massive storm later this weekend, though it may not strike our bit of the country too hard. Right now it is calm and bright, but that means nothing as clouds transform themselves in a trice and darkness deepens inexplicably, like the descent of melancholy in the middle of a song. Upstairs there is still an atmosphere of flux, and I cling in comfort to those who need me as a buoy in the sea of mutability; more than sea creatures are life’s flotsam and jetsam, it would seem. There is an extra hour tonight – which thrills me as I love my Boggis Bed – but as yet I cannot understand quite why this should be so. More questions I would ask:
1 Why do some people that we meet find it so hard to smile and say hello?
2 When you see people walking without a dog, where has it gone?
3 Why am I sure that everything will be all right?
Today the weather has been astonishingly lovely. Bear in mind that it is nearly the end of October; that we gain an extra hour by the range on Saturday night; that the evenings will come quicker; most of all that the last couple of days have been miserable, with roaring seas, dangerous tides and windy and wet to the bone. But today? Today summer returned, mild as a milkmaid’s cheek against a cow’s flank. The horizon cleared, the islands shone, Andrew’s boat bore keen folk out to gaze on the newborn seals, and even the whelkery revealed its fruits once again. No need for three layers, even before dawn; no need for gloves, even when running into the north-ish wind. Instead the sights and smells both morn and eve sank gently into our souls and the clarity of the air made our coats glisten. As Barnaby looks out from the wonderful ruins of John O’Gaunt’s castle, he is perched near the edge of winter – on to which we have looked down more than once this week – but a million miles from it; protected within its ramparts.
Around the islands lurks a boat which looks as though it means business: before dawn it glows at anchor with golden light and we fancy we can almost smell the egg and bacon of the crew’s breakfast so close to the shore does it sleep. Over the space of a week each Spring and Autumn, I am informed, it cleans the buoys which mark the dangerous seaways. So many wrecks round here. Looking at this millpond you might be forgiven for thinking: what is the point of that? Why worry about Neptune’s whereabouts, or his anger? But just as we fill the coal hod, and stack the logs, and fix the roof and fill the dog food bin with lovely herby meal I can sniff out from my bed – all done so we can face up to November – so we must remember: this is the odd day out. Better build up those castle walls, Barnaby!
Berry and I relax by the fire after an afternoon in which my tracking skills are singled me out for praise. It is good to be back in the bunk house again, making sense of it all in our dreams. Picture the scene: the rain, a leaden drizzle – the sort that quietly thunders, wets you through, especially when the wind is whipping you from the south- east on the way back to the cabin; chaps stick to thighs, and the saddlebag grows heavier as the Jonny waves roll in, trying to catch us out, and galloping Barnaby find himself up beyond his armpits in a raging torrent when a rocky shelf catches him out and he slips in. The slinky arms of the waves reach intently for our ankles and drive us up to the foothills, the yellow bluffs thrown into relief by the slaty sky. Wet is everywhere, like a desert: beneath, behind, beside, above, against us. The sand, ever softer and softer as we run from the sea, eats up our footprints as it reaches up and draws us prospectors in. Can we escape? Can we outrun the desperadoes? Overhead hundreds of buzzards watch our halting progress, screaming ‘Vamoose, you varmints!’ Out in front is Kemo Sabe with faithful Has Extra Yogurt alongside on a lariat. Eyes to the ground, they doggedly stride along and disappear from sight. I, brave deputy, alone can see that the rearguard, No Vegetables Woman and Jumps Too High, have stopped following the party and taken a shortcut up the gully by the stream to the track beyond the stockade. What peril is this? The gang driven apart? Oh no! Resolute as ever, this dude hunkers down, galloping off in pursuit of them, ululating wildly and continuously to alert the others but without much success. I continue to signal distress and disunity and soon Kemo Sabe understands, when my purposeful ride finally makes sense. My frenzied message conveyed, its meaning clear, the vanguard turns and follows me as I lead them on the others’ trail: now we must catch them up – it is all drama here! A threesome again, we finally spot the others near the railroad, but far off in the drizzle. Hard riding and hot pursuit reunite us all eventually and we make it back to the range where good stew and hot coffee await. Faithful scout indeed!
First, another glorious Northumberland sunrise! Such a peaceful, windless morning – calmer waters and gentle air about our ears – deserves to be recorded after what we’ve been through lately. As a routine, the daybreak outing sets the tone for the rest of the day, hence I often feel moved to dwell on it as I gather my thoughts on other things. But both wind and rain have set in now – nothing too dramatic, just very English dreariness. By contrast, though, our lives were brightened by a dinner time when gorgeous bits of sausage replaced the usual jellies in our bowls. The smell is legendary and utterly scrumptious! Perhaps I should explain: jellies, I now understand, are pieces of beef heart. Breakfast and dinner consist of them, on top of vegetables and wholemeal bisquit. Lovely!
Though this kind of dinner is a complete first in my little life, Uncle Jonny used to have sausages every day in his later years and I remember when I was a tiny boy smelling them browning gently in the oven – so savoury, so tempting. One day I shall write about the legend of the sausage about which all dogs learn by instinct and which is now generally thought to explain why we joined forces with humanity thousands of years ago. Jonny’s digestive incidents were certainly legendary, but it was sausages which kept his tummy on a surprisingly even keel. Whether we will see any more of this ambrosia I cannot tell, though I noticed the jelly box had been washed out and is lying empty on the shelf. When we grow old, as Jonny did, we can eat what we like so long as it keeps us well. This lovely picture was taken after he had enjoyed a meal of two steak pies freshly made by the local butcher, washed down with a bowl of tea. That day, none of us had to worry what the consequences might be as, when he woke up on the comfy sofa, lovely Lucy was there to take the pain away for good. He saw her and was glad. Remember what he told us: ‘Do not worry. I am very happy. I will always still be here.’ And he is.
By this morning the wind had at last lost some of its power, after about thirty-six hours of terrible intensity. From listening to the weather forecasters on the radio, who view the country from upside down and who just referred to it casually, you wouldn’t understand what we in the north east have been going through. At least it didn’t rain that much. As it was the sparrows had to huddle in secret on boughs bent to breaking for hours upon hours, all possibility of reaching the fat balls, nyjer seeds or nuts being out of the question as their tiny frames on their even tinier legs stiffened in the blast. We only ventured out once to see what the gods of the wind had been doing, when the sun came out and a Jonny rainbow arching in completeness over the islands drew us like a magnet as we doubled over against the force from the north west. By chance we hit upon low tide – great joy – and a harvest of jolly whelk shells, all unlooked for. Then the sky blackened, rain began, and all joy was swept away, like the dead seal rolled up to the dunes.
First thing today the tide was frightening high and still encroaching but we carefully made our way along what remained of the narrow strip of beach, towards and over the rocks, dodging the water as it drew up to our ankles, foaming like beer drawn freshly to the lips. The sea foam gathered in enormous billowing puddles on and around the horrid pool, wobbling like living flesh. A tiny fish flapped fearfully on the shore, abandoned by a careless wave. It swung energetically back and forth, almost knocking itself out in its fervour. We picked it up and threw it back, hoping he would find enough depth and strength to swim to safety. Gentle little soul, so innocent, so fragile! One from so many such, selected for particularity. The least of these and one to care about. We think about the seals out there and how things are: whether they can rest yet, or at all, knowing as they now know, what the sea can do. A desperate cry from near the look-out post convinces us that someone is warning us to go no further. Turning round we see overhead a mighty skua in the midst of others, fighting with his fellows for a fish. We stare and wonder.
As you look at this serene stretch of sand, photographed at the beginning of the week, you may have difficulty imagining what is really happening down there now. For, as I write, and as predicted, our north-east coast is being battered by the first gale-force winds of the season. You wouldn’t want to be on the beach right now! Going towards Bamburgh, you’d be screwing up your eyes against the nasty grains of sand which come at you in waves and blast against your face and stick in your ears and nose. I soon acquire a sandy mask whose sardonic qualities alarm everyone; under such conditions, the worst of which have to be seen to be believed, no one can stand upright. There is no such thing as emerging safely on to the beach: wildness is all. From an upstairs window at home we can see the gigantic waves battering Inner Farne and our thoughts turn to the tiny baby seals clinging to the rocks. Some will be lost, for sure. I cling close to the warmth of the hearth, having dashed outside for a quick pee just now. Enough, I cried! I know they will keep me safe and that we will all cleave together until we can run down the dunes again together and greet a smiling sea, as if all this had never happened. God bless creation!
”What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”
The weather is about to change they say. The stove will be lit again and my jumper will once again be needed to compensate for fur taken from me last week. It is hard to credit, today having been so temperate, so sunny and the sea so calm. Gale force winds are expected, we are told; our world will grow smaller, the horizon seem nearer. This morning two seals were fishing just offshore, playing with us as much as with each other, turning the chore of existence into one of their games. The results of their efforts have been much in evidence lately: how we thrilled to see the foot long fish shot vertically into the air – torpedoes fired by undetected seal submarines. Out on the islands the first seal pups have been born. But they do not as yet know they are born, as the saying goes, as so far Neptune has only rolled over a couple of times and he has guarded their resting places carefully. Soon though, we are told, he will lose control, and so will we. We will not know what to expect once we leave the cosy hearth, how many layers to wear, what to stack and what to store for safety. The darkness will descend and the owl will have it all his own way. Now that the geese are here, it can begin.
The world is full of wonders! Look at the sky this morning! Earth and heaven distinguish themselves by a different union, with magic clouds whispering overhead. Bronzed by this blaze of light, denied to the absent camera club – poor souls – our spirits lift, our heels kick up, Newman gnaws his seaweed and Barnaby runs amok, for a while at least!