Coasting

Drifting in moonlight / the dunes sing their songs. / Wings of old battles / fly all night long. / Cry of the seagulls, / curse of the ghosts; / aches of dead warriors / scar this old coast. From ‘Song for Northumberland’ by Keith Armstrong.

Returned home from a week away at the coast sharing a holiday house with the Newcastle branch of the family in the north Northumberland village of Belford, now by-passed by the A1, but once an important C18th coaching stop on the great north road. The Belford Community Group, a registered charity, is the key to lots of contemporary activity; setting up or running village shop, museum, gym, social clubs, playground and woodland gardens. The latter particularly impressed me as I fell into conversation with one of the volunteer gardeners in a work party tending their happy acres between a housing estate and the playground. He told me that this verdant and fully accessible patch either side of the Belford burn was once a neglected blackthorn scrubland hiding an accumulated under storey of weeds and rubbish.

The villagers wanted to mark the Queen’s Jubilee in 2002 by setting up a garden. People’s diggers and chainsaws were put to work on the initial clear out before installing infrastructure of paths and banking, then the selection & replanting, of native trees, shrubs & flowers, by which time they’d attracted development funding or help in kind from the Forestry Commission, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, the EU & others to help finish the job. An inspirational story.

The Great Whin Sill is a belt of coarse dolerite igneous rock that runs across Northumberland, an undulating series of weathered ridges and hills millions of years old, largely defined for at least 2,000 years through use for defensive purposes. These heights carry the Roman Wall and Georgian military road in the south west and are topped by great fortresses on the north-east shores at Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh, before stepping out to sea as Holy Island and the Farnes, where monasteries and saints cells mix with peel towers, lighthouses and wildlife havens.

We sailed on one of Billy Shiel’s numbered vessels out of Seahouses for a two hour sightseeing trip round the Farne Islands. In this time of Covid landings by the public are not currently allowed. Partly as a result Puffin numbers for last year show that their population increased because the birds have more undisturbed holes in the ground to lay their eggs in and raise greater numbers of ‘pufflings,’ as their young are rather charmingly known.

Our voyage round the island group took in (amongst other highlights) the UK’s largest colony of breeding Atlantic grey seals and close up views of the guano covered mini-cliff faces where vast numbers of guillemots outstrip the other seabirds who nest there. Along with razorbills, terns, puffins, eider they raise an acrid smell as pungent and impressive as the sight of them wheeling, slicing, diving and gliding all around us. It was disappointing this mist wrapped morning only gave limited visibility yet at the same time the restriction made for an experience as powerfully eerie and atmospheric as any ghost story.

Another day, from Bamburgh Beach, the islands could be seen clear as a bell. It was here in 1786 that experiments by London coach builder Lionel Lukin, commissioned by dynamic local clergyman and social activist, the Rev. John Sharp, saw a coble (traditional coastal fishing boat) converted into a prototype ‘unimmmergible’ lifeboat. The view reminded me too of young Grace Darling, whose gallant efforts with her lighthouse keeper father to rescue by rowboat passengers and crew of the ‘SS Forfarshire’ wrecked off the Farnes one storm lashed night in 1838 made her a national heroine. The popular RNLI museum in Bamburgh is named for Grace Darling.

Emboldened by being clad in a wet suit I slid into the swell before diving into the North Sea’s cold embrace. I love this beach, all three wide open miles of it. Especially as I’m a weak swimmer, a late learner, wary not to get out of my depth, so happy to trust to the strand’s gentle sandy slope. Immersion in such a sea, however cold or relatively brief, makes me sublimely happy and unbounded.

The beach may be busy, but this one’s big enough to cater for all holiday hungry humans, our presence muted under a huge sky, at one with the constant rumble of the beating sea. We sunbathe in our settlement in the dunes ascending to the base of the massive rock formation on which the mighty castle keeps watch. A medieval stronghold rescued and restored by the Victorian armaments magnate Lord Armstrong, whose family still own and occupy it, Bamburgh Castle has been photographed countless millions of times.

This week and next the castle immerses itself in another venerable character role as the setting for the fifth movie in the Indiana Jones franchise, starring Harrison Ford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I watch fascinated, in a break between playing beach cricket, as a huge crane anchored this side of the castle extends its long hydraulic reach to lift and finally, after much adjustment, position another self contained lighting rig where required, above those already in place on the walls, in readiness for the eventual shoot.

The entertainer that stole our hearts though was the busker we heard running through his versatile repertoire before we actually spotted him. A song thrush, perched on a fence at the castle’s foot, where sand dunes gave way to tarmac and the way back to the car park.

Bamburgh cannot fail to impress with that look-up-at-me and I’m-still-standing power. Dunstanburgh, by contrast, impresses with its distinctive ruined spread (at nearly 10 acres the biggest castle by area in the county). After a meal at the Jolly Fisherman pub in Craster we dutifully joined the procession of secular pilgrims following the trail over fields owned by the National Trust to the castle run by English Heritage. The trust’s tenant farmer had pastured a herd of bullocks in the big field we had to pass through which stirred things up a bit. Disorientated by so many dogs the beasts were scarily frisky for many of the visitors, who made wide berths.

The ruined fortress within its isolated enclave had an aesthetic attraction for late Georgian artists like Thomas Girtin and J M W Turner. The Victorians, more prosaically, fashioned a golf links on the opposite side. For me Dunstanburgh has a particular interest, as a former Lancaster Castle guide, because it was created by the age’s richest noble, Thomas, earl of Lancaster. Thomas was executed for rebellion in 1322 by Edward II after being captured at the battle of Boroughbridge, before reaching the safety of his newly created northern bolthole. The earl’s famous descendant, John of Gaunt, rebuilt and strengthened the castle. Interestingly it would have originally been surrounded on the landward side by three shallow lakes or meres which, apart from acting as a defensive moat, would have reflected and magnified its bulk, a signal to rival Bamburgh castle in sight up the coast that you might be higher but I’m bigger!

Summer Land and Water

The inhabitants of this county are plain, honest, and hospitable, but unpolished, and reserved in conversation. They entertain a kind of indifference for the rest of the world, owing, probably, to the good opinion they entertain of their own portion of it.  John Strachey 1737

For decades, journeying back and forth to the homeland in Devon and Cornwall I drove through Somerset on the M5 but rarely stopped. When performing in the 1980’s with the region’s touring repertory company, Orchard Theatre, we’d play venues there, at Taunton, Frome, Bridgewater and elsewhere…An overnight stop before heading off with set in tow to the next theatre or arts centre with little time to take in or get to know the county. Had a good time one term back in that same decade based at Montacute House, in the south of Somerset, working for the Young National Trust Theatre company, playing James I of England in a daily interactive performance for sixth formers in the great Elizabethan Mansion. Apart from a visit to the amazing Yeo valley organic gardens at Blagdon two years ago, I’d not lingered to uncover what else the ‘land of summer grazing’ had to offer. That’s why I so enjoyed planning and booking this week away with Kim, who likewise knew little about the place but was particularly drawn to explore the county’s fine gardens. Where better a place to be based than Wells, in the heart of this pastoral landscape, between the Mendip hills and central belt of the Somerset levels?

We usually embed ourselves out-by in the countryside when on holiday but this time opted for the comforts and conveniences of a tastefully decorated, well equipped comfortable terraced house in town (complete with garden) just five minutes walk from Wells’s magnificent cathedral and gardens. We found it a friendly traditional market town, or rather city – England’s smallest – with lots of independent shops in a variety of old buildings. Wells also yields fine views, with easy instant access on foot to the unspoilt surrounding countryside around it.

Water, pasture, hedges, ditches, orchards and churches seem to define the landscape hereabouts. The straighter the roads down on the levels – in ancient times the great marshes and lakes of Avalon – the more rolling they seem to be!

One of the highlights of our stay was a visit to Westhay Moor on the levels, an extensive spent peat works acquired by Somerset Wildlife Trust in the 1990’s. A combination of expert management and nature’s healing recourse has seen an industrial wasteland transformed into an important wetland wildlife haven, home to rare moths, mosses and sundews. Our casual meander, stopping at various hides and viewpoints, proved a revelation. It opened one’s ears and eyes to a wealth of sounds and sights…The call of the cuckoo, a brilliant flash of kingfisher, a glimpse of either a great white or a cattle egret enfolding itself into a latticework of bullrush, the nests and family flotillas of swans and coots and arching effortlessly over it all the graceful flights of wide winged marsh harriers.

We heard the unmistakeable boom of that rarest and well camouflaged of birds, the bittern. Thanks to some friendly seriously well equipped photographers met in the reserve’s hides we were able to identify the calls of otherwise unknown birds, like reed bunting and cetti’s warbler. Never seen so many house martins in one place as here, trawling open beaked through an unseen mass of insects above the reed beds and meres, seemingly indifferent to would be predators like the pair of hobby falcons also observed quartering the skies around.

Breaking out of the bedrock below the Mendips the powerful springs that give Wells its name seem to have been a natural gathering place for worship and trade from pre-history, through Roman, Saxon into Norman times when the cathedral we see today was built. Through their heyday in the middle ages the powerful and wealthy bishops of Bath & Wells harnessed these waters to irrigate produce, fashion a moated defence, erase localised flooding, power numerous mills and guarantee the town a water supply to cleanse its busy market streets.

We thoroughly enjoyed discovering this little bit of paradise on earth, all 14 glorious acres of it. An amble along the ramparts of the moated walls gives a good view of the famous resident swans that have learned to ring a bell by the gatehouse when they want feeding. A wooden footbridge gives access to the immaculately groomed sanctum of springs, sculpted by a Victorian bishop into a reflective pool that captures the glorious gothic mass of the cathedral behind it.

We were also charmed by the impressive ruins of the 13th century great hall, now interpreted as romantic open garden space; the chapel and south lawns with their great trees and contemporary under planting; the imaginative children’s play area, traditional orchard meadow, immaculate community allotments all combined in a slowly unfolding and quietly satisfying experience to make this a favourite among great gardens.  

We had a venture into contemporary aesthetics with a trip to Hauser & Wirth Somerset, at Bruton, which has become something of an arts destination. We had free pre-booked entry into its contemporary garden designed by Piet Oudolf with adjacent galleries displaying work of international artists housed in new and repurposed 19th century model farm buildings.

Those same structures also accommodate Roth bar & grill where we had a lovely laid back outdoor lunch (in this time of Covid) to celebrate Kim’s 70th birthday, along with our dear friend Michael Gee.

I’ve written about Michael before and his work in orchard conservation that earned him a well deserved British Empire Medal a few years ago. He had travelled over from home near Barnstaple to join us for a couple of days sightseeing. On his instigation we called off at a couple of outstanding Somerset churches – Croscombe and North Cadbury – but sadly Covid had caused them to close and they weren’t yet open to casual visitors. 

It would be here that I’d take away the memory of a quintessential Somerset rural setting. It’s one of cows (Friesian or Devon Ruby reds) grazing buttercup rich meadows within orchards of traditional standard apple trees. They abut lush small fields – mainly pasture or if ploughed then black peaty soil of the levels or rich red soil of the sheltered coombes – all defined by well maintained unbroken hedges dominated by masses of hawthorn in full white bloom.

Michael piloted with the OS map as I drove through a maze of lanes on the cross country trip back, via Glastonbury. Here we caught the last hour of the working day at the recently upgraded Somerset Rural Life Museum, set in the former abbey farm on the outskirts, just below the famous tor topped with the its church tower. We could view people toiling up the ridge walk to get their take of the panoramic view offered from its lofty eminence.  

We were treated to a well curated, detailed display of art and artefacts about Somerset country life in the old farmhouse, adjacent cottage and courtyard outbuildings. Their greatest treasure though has to be the Abbot of Glastonbury’s awesome great barn, built in the 1340’s, with its elaborate roof joists and stone engraved emblems of the four apostles in each gable end of its cruciform structure.  

Hestercombe is the queen of the county’s gardens, with a reputation resting on the contrasting delights of an 18th century landscape valley gardens folded into high ground at the rear of the estate’s mansion (which until 2013 housed the Somerset Fire & Rescue HQ) while out front, with views over the vale of Taunton, sits the Edwardian garden designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens with planting by Gertrude Jekyll.

Both of these horticultural paradises were ‘lost’ until recent times. A charitable trust now manages and continues the development of gardens and house (now home to art galleries and fundraising bookshop & gift shop) The landscape garden had been planted up in the 20th century with commercial forestry and its linking lakes silted up, with viewpoint shelters either destroyed or damaged. A massive amount of dogged hard work had to be done to restore or replace them.

For us the revived Lutyens/Jekyll terraced gardens exceeded all expectation. Clear design, marrying his use of intersecting grid lines and levels, local stone terracing and flag steps, long avenue pergola, rills and ponds with her subtle repeat planting and astute choice of plants by colour, form, texture and seasonality. A perfect match, harmonious and satisfying, and clearly hugely influential in setting a pattern for garden design elsewhere.

An unexpected attraction was the rook wood, close to the house, where the preserved remains of a concrete and brick accommodation block told the story of UK & US service personnel billeted here during WW2. Witness accounts & photographs were given moving artistic underpinning through a striking contemporary artwork from Jon England consisting of 18,000 galvanised nails & roofing felt which animated in pixel fashion a b/w photograph of a pilot in the cockpit of a Lancaster bomber.

Other treats included a morning exploring in awe and admiration, the cathedral interior followed by a walk along a section of the Mendip Way, from the Bishops palace across adjacent fields and back through the nature reserve at Kings Wood.

Walking the land was rewarding in unexpected ways too. We scaled the lone eminence of Burrow Mump topped by the gaunt remains of a ruined church. Now in the care of the National Trust this conical hill is dedicated as a war memorial to the 11,000 Somerset men who died fighting in both world wars. On another day, having picked up the key from the equally ancient Manor Farm (itself a listed building), we went inside the handsome medieval fish house where the abbot’s bailiff once lived, now marooned in rippling meadow by a long lost lake, the former rich source of eels and fish supplying Glastonbury abbey. At both these sites we were lucky enough to fall in to conversation with two very different local farmers, and learned how the levels disappear under water every winter when tides and floodwater meet in rivers and Rhynes (drainage ditches). Distant landmarks identified, like Hinckley Point nuclear power station, and we heard about the changes they’ve seen or expect to see in agriculture this century due to climate change and subsidy payment reform.

Left Wells at 8.30 & got back home in the north Tyne shortly after 5pm. Huge tailbacks on the other carriageway as far up as Gloucestershire on the M5 heading west told their own story of staycation in an England coming out of lockdown on a bank holiday weekend/half term. We too became part of that great mass migration, edging slowly upcountry to join the M6 in Birmingham, picking up speed again before crawling northwards once more by Manchester with everyone else seemingly heading for the Lakes, Dales, or the coast.

Blithe Spirit and Dead Nettles

    Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! / Bird thou never wert / That from Heaven, or near it / Pourest thy full heart /In profuse strains of unpremeditated art. (From: To A Skylark by P B Shelley)

What a cold hearted wet May we’re enduring, most unfavourable after a frosty dry April. But there is always cheer and interest every spring, whatever the weather, as light and life return. One of the more cheering things has been the increased presence of skylarks. We hope they may be nesting in our field, having detected their presence by sight and sound as early as February. Numbers have been in steady decline since the late 1970’s and despite considerable research no one can say exactly why. Most experts agree though that the trend away from spring sown to autumn sown crops and the ploughing up of winter stubble and spraying off of weed species have all played a part in affecting survival rates of this most iconic of birds, celebrated in verse and music, from Chaucer to Vaughan Williams.  

My cycles along the lane are made special not just by the songs of high flying competitive male skylarks but also by sightings of common wayside wild flowers. Take this one for example, white dead nettle (Lamium Album) As the name implies it’s not the roughly similar common stinging nettle. Similar plants, with different colour flowers, are red deadnettle and yellow archangel,  and are all common plants of disturbed waste ground. WDN is a hairy perennial with square stems and has hooded white flowers in whorls much loved by mason bees and bumble bees. Each flower has a small drop of nectar at its base and the leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. In herbal medicines, the plant is an astringent mainly used as a uterine tonic and to reduce excessive menstrual bleeding.

Second Covid jab means a return to Kendal. This time the town much busier, with shops open and energy and hope restored to everyday life. Coffee & bacon baguette in the market square, watching the world go by. We travel home via the A6 and get treated to some rare cross-country views. Stop off at the wonderfully stocked Larch Cottage nurseries for a bunch of plants .

Head on to near Penrith to finally get to visit Clifton Hall (usually just glimpsed from the motorway) in the care of English Heritage. Impressive tower the only remains of a Tudor fortified house on a gentle eminence now surrounded by its former farm’s modern outbuildings. Clifton was also the place where a delaying defence skirmish by Murray’s highlanders prevented Cumberland’s army catching up with Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s retreating rebel army in 1745.

Excited to see that a flurry of yellow rattle (Rhinanthus Minor) has sprung up across our roadside verge, under the shade of the copse’s willows and dry stonewall. Scarified and sown last autumn with a mixture of shade tolerant native meadow seeds these plants are pathfinders, the medal winning meadow makers, annuals that will lead a semi-parasitic existence on the grass, weakening it and making life easier for the more delicate flower varieties to flourish in its wake. Yellow rattle is named for the beak like pods that turn black after flowering and seeding itself freely. Look closely at a traditional meadow and you’ll see them there for sure.

I love taking the new Hayter lawn mower for an outing every three weeks or so. It replaces the sturdy old model whose undersides had finally rotted away after years of great service. Living up to its British racing green livery it proceeds at a steady 2 mph walk over sinuous stretch of grass that frames and connects all the garden elements of flower borders, meadow, bushes, fences, walls, trees and pond.  

May Follows

And after April when May follows / And the whitethroat builds and all the swallows

 [From: Home Thoughts from Abroad by Robert Browning]

Summer has not got a foot in the door until the swallows arrive back from Africa. They usually congregate in large numbers a quarter of a mile away at Southridge farm by late April but don’t appear to head down here until the first week in May. This year there are two pairs of returners. One of the many reasons cited for declining number of swifts, swallows and martins is the shortage of suitable nesting sites. The conversion of old working buildings into hermetically sealed modern dwellings and the bland, nature repellent design of too many new homes mitigate against avian lodgers. Here at least we can offer what they need – an open sided old railway goods wagon turned into a garden shed and two lean to porches with rafters and eaves. (A total of six old nests). I also think our garden pond helps in providing open water to create mud for nest building plus a source of insect life for feeding. The birds dive into and would take up residence in our barn sized lock up garage workshop if we let them. They are after all, barn swallows.

It took a while to clock their off stage presence but I’ve just realised that we already have birds nesting in the garage. Starlings had set up home under the building’s corrugated coralline roof at the far gable end years back, Kim tells me. An unobtrusive tunnel entrance under the roofing sheets disguises and protects their unseen, though often heard, brood. 

A short bike ride either direction along our lane is an occasional exercise I set myself to maintain basic fitness and it always brings cheer. First of all as a reminder of the sheer privilege of living here in unspoilt wild country; miles and miles of upland farmland, hidden valleys and open fell with the odd cluster of farm buildings or isolated homesteads sheltering under a vast canopy of ever changing sky. Secondly I love the seasonal offerings I’m cycling by. Bright eyed clusters of common dandelion, with healthy redoubts of other delightful spring flowers; white deadnettle, ground ivy, celandine, primroses Hawkweed (dandelion’s elegant cousin) while alongside the recently cleared ditches is that welcome lover of damp ground Ladies Smock or Cuckoo Flower (and then, as if on cue, I hear a cuckoo call from the wooded valley of the burn below). Wonder at the tenacity of silverweed (potentilla anserina yet to flower) whose shimmering delicacy of structure appears incompatible with its ability to burst through tarmac where road meets verge.

Predators go about their deadly business in seconds. A female sparrowhawk harnessing speed and agility over and above any military drone raises alarm cries from our startled avian residents as it pivots effortlessly in & out of the yard. A stoat circles three times at breakneck speed along a drainage channel between lawn and bank, only pausing to raise its head and chest above the grassy parapet in search of prey before disappearing again.

The various tribes of garden birds usually ignore the nest boxes put out for them but this year I’m pleased to report the amorous and energised dunnock trio have set themselves up in an open sided box placed three years back under the eaves of the railway hut, part hid by spare boughs that stand bundled there as reserve pea and bean sticks. Robins, for the first time are nesting in the ivy on the northern porch wall while the first pied wagtail chick we’ve seen, in shades of grey livery, has appeared out front, looking rather lost. Of the two sets of blackbirds who normally nest east and west ends of the garden, somewhere in the stone walls behind bushes and trees, one pair is always ahead of the other. It never ceases to surprise us that the chicks are virtually the same size as the adult feeding them and that they spend as much time running around the place as they do making short low level flights. As reported in an earlier diary, it is almost inevitable that at least one youngster will end up drowned in a water trough.

At least this year there will be one less watery grave for them to fatally explore. After two years of experimentation I’ve given up using the galvanised cattle trough as a tank pond and have turned it into a flowerbed instead. Neither oxygenating plants nor insect life could thrive in such a sterile and challenging metal box environment, which also produced an oily surface film, although the various Irises did manage to survive. The repurposed tank, drained and filled with soil, replaces two much smaller galvanized feed troughs that proved too shallow for effective sustainable planting, needing too much regular watering. Placed by a south facing wall, set symmetrically under the bathroom basin overflow pipe, my tank might almost pass as the original water trough.

A friend told me a story about the church graveyard in his village in Cumbria. A neighbour confided that she’d witnessed the aftermath of shocking vandalism in Gods acre and showed him vases overturned and flowers scattered everywhere, a right old mess. What was the world coming to when people do this sort of thing? The next day my friend’s other neighbour told him what had actually happened, for he the neighbour had witnessed it take place…. Crows and magpies, in unholy alliance, knocking over flowerpots and tossing blooms everywhere before flying off.  

Catching up during good weather with minor structural work…putting in new poles and refixing the fallen barbed wire to protect drystone wall on our neighbour’s field side; putting in a set of stones at top of garden bank steps; stacking the last drop of logs to dry overwinter in the east end store; scattering fresh gravel from a dumpy bag on paths and in the yard; rebuilding a border wall at the back of the old playhouse; cutting and setting a slice of turf to widen an awkward narrow curve of lawn….all quietly satisfying tasks when undertaken at the right place and time.

Keen to see if the hedgehog had survived the long winter and this kickback April I raised the wooden lid of its low level hideaway in the spinney and ruffled the compacted bed of moss, leaves, sticks and straw and was rewarded with a grunt. I quickly replaced the cover and left, sorry to have disturbed it in the day time yet pleased to know it was alive and well in its cosy lair. The yard security light has been coming on a lot recently so we can’t help wondering if the nightly foraging of our resident hedge pig was the trigger.

These Things Also Are Spring’s

But these things also are Spring’s – / On banks by the roadside the grass / Long dead that is greyer now / Than all the winter it was; / The shell of a little snail bleached / in the grass; chip of flint, and mite / Of chalk, and the small birds dung / In splashes of purest white. (Edward Thomas)

The rites of spring are evident in and around all our gardens right now. A sustained period of warm dry weather is welcomed with open arms, although the cold still nights that bring late frosts are capable of wrecking withering havoc on bloom and blossom or tender plants and bean seedlings in the (unheated) greenhouse. Our farming neighbours pray for rain to bring on the sward in their pastures to feed the swelling numbers of turned out lambs and calves.

Clearing out the last of the logs from the east end store I discover an abandoned rat’s nest of chewed up pieces of black plastic bags mixed with shredded rodent poison bags! These labelled bags must be old as not bought by us so the nest may have been here some time. A perfect place for them with easy covered access back of the coal bunker one way to get under the deck and round the corner to drains the other way. We suspect from observation the cavity walls and old walls must hold both rats and mice. I sometimes put bait down for them but mostly desist as I don’t want to undermine nature’s food chain and inadvertently poison the weasels and owls or occasional cat that feeds on them in turn.

Highlight of the week was the sight of residents returned from winter quarters to the garden pond. A glimpse of sashaying tail under the floating weeds drew my attention. Sitting to watch I was treated to a sight never witnessed before – palmate newts paired for mating. A very tender thing it was too. Vertical integration with gentle stroking and languid unhurried motions, whether post coital or not I could not tell, as all this was part obscured by the tangle of oxygenating weed in which they were embedded. The female will protect her eggs from predators by wrapping fertilised eggs in the leaves of of pond plants that inhabit the margins and shallows….forget me not, brooklime, water buttercup, creeping jenny, globeflower, water dropwort, lesser spearwort etc.

Doing our best to tune ears to the calls and refrains of garden birds so we can distinguish blue tit from great tit, robin from wren. Some are easier, like the combined chatter of house sparrows or the unmistakable calls of head chorister the male blackbird, while some are almost impossible to pin down with certainty when you can’t see the songster. Kim delighted when out walking to be told by a naturalist writer friend with an attuned ear that willow warblers are present, back from Migration in Africa. Their tuneful melancholic descending trill heard at our field’s end, coming from somewhere in the neighbouring willow carr. Still no sight or sound of willow or marsh tit though sadly, despite my wishing otherwise.

Last spring a male chaffinch saw his reflection in the glass panes of the front garden door every morning and took to attacking it vigorously with his beak. This year either the same bird or another (who can tell?) is back to repeat the rat-a-tat morning reveille. Out in the yard I’ve taken to covering both our cars wing mirrors with shower caps to stop birds scratching the glass and pooping on the paint work in the process! Up the road at Southridge, with its wonderful new garden room at the granary’s gable end, our friends are driven to distraction by the unwelcome attention of pied wagtails who are doing much the same, on a bigger scale over a greater surface of glass.

The dunnock ménage a trois that has formed in our garden this mating season is the most active of all the avian species present, zipping about all over the place at great speed. The little bird’s behaviour is singular, as this extract from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) website explains;

‘For many years, a peculiar piece of Dunnock behaviour had been noted by many people – vent or cloacal pecking. One Dunnock was seen to peck under the tail of another but there was no explanation of what was happening. A few years ago, Nick Davies, working in the Cambridge Botanical Garden, found out the absolutely stunning explanation for this behaviour. Dunnock breeding behaviour has evolved into an amazing melange of systems, with monogamous pairs, pairs with two males and one female and even pairs with two males and two females. Many males were trying to father chicks with females in other territories, pecking at the female cloaca to displace any sperm from a previous mating before mating themselves. Cloaca pecking was all about the cock bird trying to ensure that he was going to fertilise as many eggs as possible’.

One early evening we observed two of our trio going about this intimate business, just a few yards away, on the ground. Quite a sight! Another advantage of this unique reproductive system is that both cock birds, uncertain of paternity, will feed the female at the nest during incubation, thus increasing the breed’s survival chances.

There’s always a strand of tragedy present, of death in the midst of life. From stillborn lambs to a hen blackbird drowned in one of the garden water tanks. Fortunately most repeating tropes of spring just simply delight and enhance. From the lemon slice of a moon slung hammock like in the night sky; yelps of foxes and hooting owls; the soft thrum of hoof beats when lamb gangs in the field repeat through yet another generation those mad chasing games in and out of hollows by the wall; the spreading yellow carpet of shining celandines under coppice trees thinned last year, skylarks heard before seen over the crags; a crystal clear night sky ablaze with a thousand million pricks of light, reminding us of the region’s officially designated dark sky status. These things also are Spring’s.  

The Greatest of my Pride

Sir, I am a true labourer; I earn that I eat, get that I wear; owe no man hate; envy no man’s happiness; glad of other men’s good, content with my harm; and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck. (As You Like It III/ii)

They usually lamb late each spring in this northern hill country, for obvious reasons. An out of joint weekend of sneaky snow came and went, marked by a plaintive night time of baaing from the wide open pasture next our house. Yet they all seemed to survive this sudden yet brief reversion to winter with few casualties.

Our neighbour comes by on the quad next day with supplement pellets in a hopper. Eldest grandson Joe, just turned 17 and keen to explore the possibilities of a career in agriculture, is staying with us in order to gain work experience with our friends up at Southridge as well as with other good friends over the hill at Hazelford. Everyone wishes for more grass; it’s been slow coming on this springtime. Once out and about a sharp eye needs keeping on lambs looking for novel ways to die, like drowning in a fallen land drain or getting stuck in a culvert.

Younger grandson Harry (11) is also here with his younger sister, and he’s up next door for one morning too, in the ‘hospital’ shed doing the rounds of the various ‘casualty’ lambs, helping with feeding and other routine tasks. Joe’s observing calving as well as lambing, seeing and hearing first hand all that’s involved in the various processes and how the farmer’s hands on skills dealing with difficult deliveries makes all the difference to an animal’s survival.

After work I oversee the boys shooting in the garden with my old BSA air rifle. We set an old watering can up on the gatepost to our field and pop away from increasing distances. It turns out Harry is as good, indeed on some sessions, better than Joe or me.  I remember my older brother doing all this sort of stuff with me at his age and what fun it was. 

We go down to the other end of our field to put a new New Zealand style latch on the gate, refill the bird feeder, watch for avian visitors with the binoculars, pick up and haul back more branches to feed through the chipper or logs to extend the established hibernation habitation for amphibians around the garden pond. One day Harry & I see three roe deer does break cover from the willow carr below to lope across the open field, white rumps bouncing away as they flee.

Emily (8) has no interest in sheep or shooting, but loves making art. She also helps out Kim, planting seed potatoes, arranging flowers picked in the garden or watering in the greenhouse. She also helps me re-paint the old metal garden seat. And a day drawing or painting in the studio on her own or with her friend, our neighbour’s granddaughter visiting, is never wasted.

A combined family walk over at Hazelford a few days later on a fine sunny afternoon is good for us all in different ways. We’re shown where the orphaned or rejected lambs are ‘put to’ adoptive ewes, penned by bales and hurdles in the lower barn, until the smell and presence bonds them (or not as the case may be).

I peel off track from time to time to take in the lie of the little valley. Star bursts of spring flowers in the banks; free mingling celandines, primroses, violets and wild strawberry enriching the vision with their delicate colour mix. Alders, willows and ash define the river along its boundary banks.

Further off I admire the mature trees, mainly oaks, along the steep bank that defines the northern edge of meadow. These are remnants of ancient woodland (officially defined as being at least 400 years old). Now protected by fencing, up until 40 years ago when our friends tenure started, it was still being felled for timber. Today an understory of hazel gleams in the sun, hawthorns are shortly to burst into leaf while grey discarded boughs gently rot on the ground below the giants that shed them. Fencing doesn’t stop deer predating oak saplings while summer’s rampant grasses and weeds will likely choke them. Our friends are planting oaks from home grown acorns as and where they can.

The four younger grandchildren we have between us and our hosts, aged from 2 to 11, had played well together down the track, in the fields and at the stream, while the mule ewes and their new lambs gaze or graze as we pass. There was tea and homemade shortbread, bread and jam to be had in the farmhouse garden on our return, with a gymnastic display from the kids by way of entertainment, before the return of the parents.

Bat, Trap and Trail

A week of warm days and spurts of Spring growth, the next week frost, high wind and hail. No wonder flora and fauna are confused and often discombobulated. The daffodils were flattened and other plants left punch drunk. Luckily there’s no blossom out yet so fruit setting will not be affected.

Sitting out in the open sided porch in the good weather phase we were startled by the sudden appearance of a bat – a common pipistrelle as it turned out – awake from hibernation in a thumb width gap between porch roof beam and stonewall. 

A fair weather walk on open access fellside a drive away yielded fine views over the valley and beyond, with a pall of static smoke hugging the northern horizon. Almost certainly heather moorland being burnt to stop it getting leggy and to encourage new growth which in turn favours the game birds kept upon it by the landed estates and shooting syndicates. Swaling, as it’s called, is a practice attracting increasing opposition from environmental and anti-field sports bodies. Carbon capture and storage is a major concern in combating climate change and this once widely accepted process on upland peat soils – especially in National Parks – is a controversial issue in the debate on land management in the 21st century.  

A little later we came across another reminder of rural practice that’s far more disturbing to most people. Our attention was caught by what looked like a chicken coop, made of battens and wire, but with an inverted V shaped top. Following off road tyre tracks we approached for a closer look. The coop was populated not by poultry but by a dozen or so corvids – crows mainly I think – flapping their wings, calling, rising & falling. It dawned on me what I was looking at – a Larsen trap, named after the Danish gamekeeper who developed it in the 1950’s. Banned in that country today but perfectly legal here apparently, if done under licence, with water and food placed into the cage in order to make it legal. A live decoy bird – often with clipped wings – is set as bait and the other birds are lured by its calls. Landing on the inverted top they fall through its trap. At some point the keepers will come back in their vehicle, enter the trap and screw the necks of the inmates and dispose of the bodies. Further research reveals that these traps are normally placed near private woodlands, off the beaten track, in use during the game breeding season to control predators like these corvids, so it was unusual to see one here on open moorland off a bridle path, albeit on private land owned by somebody with gaming interests.    

Away from the darker side of country life we were bemused another day when out on a local stroll from home by the sight of a flock of sheep abandoning their rough grazing, with hopes of being fed, trailing behind that rarest of sights these days – a long distance walker on the national trail – after he had stopped to take bearings before trudging on. Unusually he looked rather ill equipped as beside the obligatory rucksack on his back he was also bearing carrier bags in either hand. Later, we spied him back on track and about to cross the lane near home. Intrigued I engaged him in conversation at a style. Turns out our young hiker, a South African based in Derbyshire, was turning his furlough from work into a walking holiday of a lifetime having set off from the north end of the Pennine Way at Kirk Yetholm to get back home at the south end. (A 268 mile trek). He said that the worst aspect was his terrible guidebook, and that so many places en route were closed, due to the pandemic. He was a cheerful soul though and must be tough enough to have done the 45 miles already covered. The bags got lighter as he progressed he assured me. Kim appeared with another shopping bag to replace one that was badly ripped but otherwise our young friend refused our offers of assistance by way of water or nourishment. He was looking forward to finding a good place to bed down by the forest’s edge and enjoy his first cup of tea for days, due to a mix up over camping gas fittings and cartridges which he’d only just that day manage to sort. Our hearts went out to him as his weary figure disappeared from view, but felt enriched by his words. ‘ I didn’t want to spend  my spare time moping about, watching Netflix all day and being bored’ he joked. Now, that’s the spirit!

Down to Earth

Further to my last post on 1st March I put two types of bird feeder at our field end, on our northern neighbours overhanging willow branches. The hope was to see if endangered species of willow or marsh tit might be present in this type of environment, and if so, might they be attracted by this food. Daily visits reveal the fat balls are a hit but the Niger seeds are not. No sign of marsh or willow tits alas but we’re well compensated by the sight of a flock of pretty long tailed tits enjoying the feast. Insectivores, they are clearly also partial to fat balls. Until this point I had seen more of these endearing creatures stopping off at the feeder in the yard of my terraced home in Lancaster than I had here in the rural heart of Northumberland. Rick Thompson in his delightful book Parklife, A Year in the Wildlife of an Urban Park, memorably describes a long tailed tit as being like a ball of wool with the knitting needles sticking out.

Big Sean showed up this week with his tanker and pipe to empty our septic tank. Gentle giant of a guy, shaven headed, covered in tattoos and a true countryman, we had fun testing pipe inflows into the tank and he showed me some tricks of the trade to handle future blockages, should we be unfortunate enough to have them!. Our brick and concrete settling tank, hidden in the ground, lies at the bottom corner of the garden, a decent fallaway from the house. Surrounded by blackthorn, gorse and briar, it’s a prickly mini-wilderness to deter human ingress and provide a haven for birdlife. We discover on lifting that some of the concrete slab covers are cracked so will need replacing soon. Must needs get hold of some railway sleepers and cut them to fit across its length.

Everyone is aware just how much lockdown has affected ways we communicate. Because we can’t be with the far off youngest broods of grandchildren I’ve taken to sending them videos shot on the mobile phone when out and about. Given their fascination with all things mechanical that’s invariably the subject matter; from the septic tank suction pipe in operation to contractors banging in field fences, to diggers and tipper trucks clearing a town centre construction site…I’ve had great fun keeping the clips coming for this select but appreciative audience of under 7’s. The other form of entertainment I’ve sent them has been home recorded stories.

The compact electric powered shredder I bought in the farm supplies store sale has proved really useful for recycling cut wood. Branches too thick to chip (over 35 cm) I’m slowly stacking in the spinney as another refuge, beside logs, for wild animals to shelter in or explore. In the past I’ve seen weasels and stoats in and out of such hideaways. We’re excited to have a weasel in residence somewhere about the place. It’s been spotted raiding the vole colony in the rockery after we’d initially suspected its presence from seeing footprints in the snow in February. Likewise a hare will occasionally make a welcome appearance in the garden, unconcerned at our presence, yet maintaining distance. Still surprises us that seen up close a weasel is as small as it is and a hare as large.

After a clean out of their stable Southridge gifted us a digger bucketload of horse manure & straw over our boundary fence. I’ve been commuting back and forth with the wheelbarrow ever since; spreading it on flower beds, round fruit trees and bushes, topping pots and bolstering compost boxes. With the Spring offensive under way at last we’re increasingly involved in garden renewal and maintenance…Winter’s nature friendly dead foliage is cleared, some frost killed shrubs dug up and replaced with other more hardier varieties. The pond, I’m cheered to note, is stirring to life as yellow globe flower heads swell and floating strands of veronica leaves green up.

Willow

‘With a shake of his poor little head, he replied / Oh willow, titwillow, titwillow’

The Mikado / Gilbert & Sullivan

The contractors that put in a length of field fence for us three years ago returned to replace one of Southridge’s this week. Last year there were lambs escaping regularly to roam the road & cause traffic problems so this year our neighbours have  the guys in ripping out the old rotten stuff and putting in new treated posts and stretchers top wire & netting. The hydraulic post banger they use packs a punch.

Five years ago friends in north Devon allowed us to cut some whips from coloured willow they’d planted in the wet end of a field newly planted as an orchard for their juice making business. They took well here in Northumberland and every year we harvest from them to make wreaths and stars or give to our crafting neighbour for her flower arrangement business. Here’s this spring’s bunch, tied in the yard, waiting collection.

My good mate Dave & I have returned to the bottom of our four acre patch of rough grazing to carry on where we left off before the snow came. We traced the barbed wire in the wreck of dead grass and sedge and set up half dozen new fence posts. The soggy ground quaked but received them well. I wore out a pair of padded gloves straightening & pulling the vicious metal strands to get stapled to the posts. This ‘pole and barb’ will keep cattle, as well as sheep, away from the fence dented by the sagging trunks of our northern neighbour’s willows that we had previously trimmed or felled. My friend is accurate and suitably safety conscious with the deadly saw as he goes about his work and we soon have a high pile of branches and logs for a future bonfire. Willow’s not a wood that burns well, being steeped in damp, but once dried it should light with artificial combustible help.

Willow carr (wetland wood) is no longer as common as it would have been centuries back. Draining and agricultural improvement have gradually seen to that, while post war urban expansion and fracturing of ecosystems into disconnected blocks has severely threatened the survival of much dependent wildlife.

The willow tit is one such affected species. The latest annual RSPB ‘State of the UK’s Bird Report’ records a staggering 94% decline in their numbers since 1970, making it the most threatened ‘Red List’ native UK bird species. If you were to draw a line from the Severn to the Wash, nearly all the densely populated land to the south east of it has become a virtual desert for this wee flyer. Land lost to housing, new roads and other infrastructure projects have hit woodland species like willow tits particularly badly. They are sedentary birds, less able to adapt to climate and other changes and need a particular stable environment to flourish in. For them that’s dense wetlands or scrub where they can work their nests in decaying wood, preferably willow or birch, which also provide the insect life on which they feed. Modern agriculture and construction mitigate against such environments. Another factor may be the effect of deer. Their numbers have greatly increased in recent years and they’re believed by some to be eating out many remaining retreats of dense thicket and woodland understorey. Ironically, where willow tit populations have stabilised, and even increased, are on former industrial sites, like coal workings, in Derbyshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire that have been allowed to ‘re-wild’ or have become official reserves.

By way of experiment I am going to try hanging a variety of feeders from the willow branches overhanging our bog and see what birds, if any, they attract. Marsh & willow tits are virtually identical to look at but have distinctly different songs and calls. If  fortunate enough to see either of these lovely little birds I would be quite made up. Will report back here if successful, or not, as the case may be.

Winter Pass

Over the land freckled with snow, half thawed / The speculating rooks at their nests cawed / And saw from elm tops, delicate as flower of grass, / What we below could not see, winter pass. [Edward Thomas]

The snow lingered a week and more, alternating days of bitter easterlies with those of utter calm, broken only by occasional traffic on our winding rural C road. Driving to the village for supplies is characterised by cautious evasion of potholes that a deadly combination of harsh weather and log lorries has caused to emerge on stretches of road not resurfaced 18 months ago. I register a complaint to the county highways authority and trust others will too so we might see some remedial action. (Don’t have much hope that that’ll be any time soon).

Bump into a friend in the street whilst down there who tells me her bronchial problems have been made worse since the lockdowns began. That’s due, she holds, to a big increase in the burning of logs and coal, day and night. The village, snug in the sheltering dale, holds by-products of home heating only too effectively. Another friend, a nurse, says that pulmonary complaints, along with rheumatoid ones, feature strongly in many residents’ health profiles.

Being under virtual house arrest in an environment like ours is not ideal but it is bearable. Revived childhood excitement when I dug out the red sledge from the garage and took it to the end of our field. On that steepest of slopes I managed to hang on and avoid the worst bumps caused by stones and rushes. Huge fun, much laughter generated, plus good exercise in clambering back up top for another go.

Our daily circular strolls from home over the whiteness provided extra interest in following tracks and intersections of various wild animals. Foxes, hares or rabbits, possibly a stoat or weasel all identified. And not just their varied paw prints but arrangements of limbs and tails, pressing or brushing the snow. In the garden too we could see where the rodents trailed from house to rockery.

Walking further afield, atop our nearest fell, drew intakes of breath when we came across the effect of alternating freezes and further snowfall in preserving ghostly marks of passage along the well trod bridleway. We drink in the vista over miles and miles of moors, fells, fields and converging dales; grand on any clear day but even more so now without a soul to be seen anywhere.

In the wake of freezing rain came a sudden increase in temperature and the landscape was once again transformed, with most of the snow and ice melting rapidly away. Indoors, the odd flutter of small tortoiseshells awakening from hibernation, brought on by extra heating when the weather was at its worst.

Outside, helibores, snowdrops and daffodils greet lengthening days. I resume spreading woodchip in the woodlands and Kim starts clearing around borders. We both get our NHS letters today, offering the Covid-19 vaccine. So yes, the year is turning and Spring has come.