Treading the sea glass

When we arrived at Dunstan and walked down to the castle, I heard them. Unmistakably alien-sounding and causing a quick lance of joy in my chest: the seagulls were hawking their cries. Though gulls are ubiquitous almost everywhere these days, encroaching onto the thin, begrudging borders of our towns – wheeling over dumps and nuisancing the outsides of eateries – there is a difference my ear cannot miss in the rationed and contained cries of the gulls inland and the vast ache of cry the seagull emits on the wing above the sea. The sea wind does something in carrying this cry that enlarges it. Its voice fills an emptiness I did not know I was carrying around inside me, like a faint echo. The sea, the sea.

I have hoarded a desire to see the sea for a while now, having been absent from it for 23 months. Waves have been frozen in my mind; a restless sea halted without me to dip my toes into it. This week on the Northumberland coast, the sound of the sea haunts me at night, delivering restless visions. I listen to sterile digital waves in the wee hours of the morning to conjure sleep when it doesn’t come, buzzed from seeing so much of my family on this holiday to celebrate my dad’s 70th. My mind’s eye sees the sea spume, and the white membranes stretched like a sheep’s caul across the bob and lift of the waves. I lie awake feeling wired – all too aware of the sea no more than a mile distant – the knowledge of it like a whelk shell pressed to my ear. Now, today, I will walk the sea floor and I’m dumb with awe before it. Made a child again. The cries of the gulls interpret for me how wide and fathomless are the sea and sky. My soul has missed them.

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I had decided weeks ago that I wanted to walk out to Lindisfarne, knowing that I could at the very least walk the causeway but hungry for a walkers’ counterpart to the road. A little research yielded fruit – the Pilgrim Way has been the footway in use since before Aidan first came here in the 7th century (that was when the original set of 15ft way-finding poles was erected). The “path” is navigable when the tide is out and has 2 refuge stations en route which resemble treehouses on stilts (in case of need). I possess a map, advice and tide times (and a healthy dose of well-meant familial concern about the wisdom of walking out to sea, which of course serves only to strengthen my determination).

Like one arm of a tuning fork, the Pilgrim Path veers away from the causeway and out into the silty and part-submerged sandlands of Beal Bay. The mainland curves in the distance down towards Bamburgh on the right, and the causeway leading to Lindisfarne’s Snook Point curves to the left, giving the illusion that you are in a land-locked lagoon, but for a small gap on the horizon straight ahead, between the southern tip of the Island and the twin Leading Lights. Fishermen use these “lights” to get their bearings when out in their fishing smacks, bringing back their sea hauls. They are beacons that represent home but also the dangers of rocks lurking on the sea bed.

It surprises me how tame it feels here, as I prepare to leave the road and cross the ancient slick of path to the Island. But it is low tide and the sea, for the time being at least, has relinquished its claim on the bay. Sucked back out to the main, gathering itself, waiting.

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I’m feeling a little sharp and out of sorts at the outset, tired from the turmoil of sea-dreams, and impatient for the sand to take the edges off the corners of my mood. It is strange to farewell my family carrying on in the car, and to trudge the causeway road behind them; strange to walk beside the cars, but be marginalised into the silty-sedgey grasses by the wayside. There is a sense in walking the route to the Island of cutting myself off – of intentional marooning – that is irresistible and at the same time very vulnerable. I am fugitive, harbouring the fierce intent of walking out to sea, daring it to come back in ahead of time and catch me out with its on-rush of water. I imagine the tide leeching irrevocably and unstoppably across the flat sands of the bay, inching higher and higher by the minute, gaining momentum with nothing in its path to halt it. I am quite alone, left to my own devices for three miles until I make land like flotsam on the opposite shore, fending for myself in terrain in which I’m not native and where quicksands and bogs have been known. I am like any other pilgrim stranger here then, with nought but a vision and the way beneath my feet.

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Somewhat prosaically, the Pilgrim Way begins on the road, and I am jealous of the farne monks and pilgrims of old who walked the whole of the original path – umbilicalling the motherland to the Island – unencumbered by tarmac, traffic and exhaust fumes. It has become the tradition that once a year the islanders walk the Way from Lindisfarne to the mainland, and partway along the St Cuthbert Way, in honour of the Saint’s memory. Soon enough comes the point of deliberate departure: at the bridge, crossing the Lindis river (the wand of water leading out to sea), and following the long marching line of way-marking poles which curve away from the safety of the road into sand, silt and water. From hereon, the shifting seascape is all silver. I cast my eyes adrift on it to land on any feature in the view that is not the monochrome movement of the water or the reflected sky, but there’s nothing between me and the mercury of the sea.

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Keen to be off the road and away from the cars, I leave just before the bridge and have to spend some time finding a shallow enough place to cross the river. Wading out into it, I feel the strong suck of its resistance. It laps over my knees with freezing cold, washing off some of my mood, and salting me for the path ahead. My goose-pimpled flesh pays the toll as if this were a lesser Styx at the outset of my journey, stealing the warmth from my bones as the required fee of passage.

The Way yawns before me. I had not known what to expect from a path that the sea submerges for 10 hours of every day. My eye tricks along the horizon line and I am surprised at the horseshoe of land that, albeit distantly, surrounds me here and at how much water still remains on the sands, rippling out from my feet, an hour after the spring tide is out. My footsteps fall wetly, often making no impression at all, ghosting my progress through this watery world. The sky reflected in it gives me the impression of walking out onto glass, but for the kythins left by the lug worms which squirt spirals of black silt up through the sand. Two days before, I’d waded out from the golden sands of Embleton Bay and been chastened by its chilly North Sea grip. With some relief, I discover that here the sea lies sun-warmed: tepid and luxurious. Not a pilgrim’s penance at all. The saltwater is soft, lapping at my feet in warm transparencies that catch and in-prism the light. Letting it wash over me is keen pleasure. With a renewed sense of comfort, I relish the wind at my back and the sun strong and spangling on the water.

I make for the poles that articulate the way. Their barnacled skins and ropes of seaweed are blunt reminders that this path is washed out twice a day by the sea, but they stand against permanent erasure and, marching in succession, set me right. I cleave to them. 123 of them lead to the far shore, dwindling to the size of matchsticks as my eye tries to count them. Ten of my strides make the space between each one: 1230 strides (or thereabouts) to the Island. A modest pilgrimage.

The poles were last replaced in the 1970s as part of an initiative from the Manpower Services Commission to provide work for the unemployed. I wonder what those men, down on their luck, felt about digging deep into the darkening silt below the sand to give the poles a good grounding, one eye cocked to the east to watch for the sea’s return; about the forest that the poles were grown in; and whose task it was to choose trees so ramrod straight for the task. Out here in the middle of the bay, the poles and I are the only verticals in an otherwise flat world; the only signs to give some permanence and presence to a semi-permanent path.

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The view is mono-lateral and there is a faint anxiety in it for me – dweller of valleys and more familiar with the geography of Yorkshire. It is flattening, and initially I am flattened by it, finding that there is nothing to do but to succumb, let the way bear me upon it, and wash out my thoughts tinged with disquiet and distraction. Without my usual markers of flowers and wildlife to look out for, I notice more about the shifting quality of the light and clouds; the change from sand which shifts in gentle depressions beneath my feet to silty mud which squelches, squidges and slip-slides me along until I almost lose my balance, causing my heart to spike at every almost-fall. A bog mires the midpoint of the Way in a slake of mud. You think you know mud from woodland floors, garden beds, rammed-earth tracks – but that’s just dirt. In the choiceless bog, I disturb primordial ooze which covers me to the shins in the total ancient black of crude oil. I sink slowly and surely down into it, forcing foul gassy air to the surface in wet mud-burps. With some manoeuvring, and like a fish caught on a line, I contort and wriggle my legs free from the mud’s resisting kiss. A narrow miss.

Through the bog and past the second refuge tower (its wood desiccated and salt-dried as bone), the sands stretch before me streaked with livid green swad – a miniature kelpie forest with its streamers of seaweed pulled in the direction of the retreating tide. Caught in the fronds is a collection of cockle shells: the pilgrim’s badge. They lie treasured amongst the shifting weeds of the tidal pool, motionless for a brief borrowed while before the sea sweeps in again to toss and claim them in its foaming hands. I have not earned my cockle shell yet, I tell myself, moving on, my footprints fluid underwater.

I leave few marks of my going. Occasionally I spy the footprints of others, some similar in size to mine and similarly barefoot and I wonder about these strangers – about their reasons for treading the sea glass – whether they are pilgrims or tourists or both. There are others ahead of me on the Way, yet I feel a privacy in this levelling world which is at ironic odds with the cars on the causeway no more than 200 yards to my left. Sometimes these other prints are muddled and crossed with those of wading birds: green shanks, bar-tailed godwits and curlews (not forgetting the gulls). So absorbed have I become by what’s beneath my feet that it’s a while before I realise I’m being accompanied along the last mile by green shanks, scuttling the sand a few paces to the side of me looking for choice morsels in the sand-beds. I am tickled that they seem unfazed by my presence, this acceptance of me in their flatlands more precious than any cockle shell.

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For a long time it seems I walk the Way without the farther shore getting any closer, and it’s at just this point that the bay feels at its widest too, stretched taut as if caught on the tenter-hooks of Island, beacons and headland. I am completely exposed on all sides: a small moving dot in the bowl of the bay. Any sounds I catch above the wind whistling in my ears are warped beyond safe recognition here. I think I hear a woman cry out, the sound seeming to come from the expanse to my right and advance towards me. It’s a thready moment while I scan the sands for signs of anyone in distress, but there’s no one and I tell myself, still with a glimmer of worry, that it must have been a dog’s bark that the sea wind distorted and bounced about the bay, only for a moment indulging my fancy.

I arrive on the Island at last, slightly regretful, with my wits a little pickled by my sea walk. I would not wish to spend too long out here on the tidal sands, caught and pent in a refuge tower, waiting for the sea to release me and subside again. But I’m already wistful for the freedom I found on the silvered sands, the clouds reflected at my feet. Already the sea is working to remove the impressions of my passage, undoing the traces I’ve left behind me. As if I never trod the Way, and none of this ever was. In the end, the Pilgrim Path’s as resistant to impression as glass that’s renewed with every change of the tide.

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At the time of hay-making

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The air hangs in heavy skeins about us, thick as threads to walk through and swollen with pollen almost tasting on the tongue. Unlike in the cities, the sky is split wide open here in the Dales and stripped by the hungry cries of the swallows winging it above, skirting the stone barns and scooping their dinners out of thin air. They swing loose on invisible paths, their characteristic forked tails making perfect stabilisers as they sail gracefully through each arc. It is pleasing simply to watch them belly out across the view and join up the two halves of the valley like a pendulum. Is it my fancy that they seem to fly southerly, as if rehearsing the end of year exodus to warmer climes? The snap and glide of their wings is nearly all one hears on this sultry day in the stillness of the meadow, and I think to myself: their dynamism is mine too. My thoughts follow them freely, hitched to their flights.

We’ve come to the hay meadows at Muker like pilgrims, humbly and seeking something rare: Yorkshire’s wildflowers grown undisturbed on Yorkshire soil. We are pilgrims in spirit at least, because in terms of transport we’ve cheated and driven in the VW to get here, parking up under a tree where the bank falls away into the river. The busyness of Muker envelops us from first footfall on its soil: sounds of water and laughter, ice creams being bought and slurped outside the general store which has faded postcards on sale at the door for 30p, proof that some things stand still. As we made our way over country-cambered roads, the farmers of Swaledale were out in force making hay while the sun shone, big machinery methodically cleaving, releasing into the air the acrid tang of newly cut grass so that it smelled ozone green, sappy and harsh to the nose. But at Muker the grass and flowers are left long until late in the season, an agreement between the conservationists and farmers to let the native wildflowers and the biodiversity they encourage thrive for as long as possible. It’s June. The meadows are not for harvesting yet, but are still in their growing season. Borrowed time.

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The heat is not yet the smothering heat that will settle in this summer and cram like cotton wool in the ears and the mouth. It lilts on the tops of the buttercups, the yellow rattle and the delicately lobed flowers of the stitchworts. The shepherd’s purse is not leggy, stressed or dessicated with it yet, nor have the speedwells faded to palest blue, the edges of their petals crisped by the scorch of the sun. The tiny white tubular trumpets of the eyebright are still stout and unwavering in the embrace of the rattles and grasses; the cranesbills livid bruises of colour. Time for wilt and running to seed all too soon. There’s the promise of it even now in the building noonday heat.

Meadows like those between Muker and Keld are many decades in the making. Yet you can make a meadow in just a year too, proving that endurance is harder than beginning. They are part of the DNA of Muker and Swaledale now – a “unique selling point” the guidebooks depressingly averr, as if here were to be found a commerce of flowers; nature’s supply and demand.  People travel to Muker specifically to see the meadows, as did we when first we visited in May, walking slowly but purposefully up the hill from the main street, anticipating our first view of them laid out under the sun, our imaginations having conjured great tempting images of meadows flower-full and an orchid in every patch. To see a wild orchid was the apotheosis of my desire and I coveted it like a child that wants the most prized sweet in the shop. I knew such images were traps for disappointment, but no one can control their wishes. Such was my wistfulness when, stopping to admire some flowers accidentally-on-purpose growing in a trough, we were accosted by one of the residents who took this as her cue and nipped in to provide botanical assistance. Cuckoo flowers, she informed us: pale, lavender-pink and lovely, clustering on slim-throated stems. The visual counterpart to the bird which (if you’re lucky) you hear calling at this time of year. The encounter savoured of the professional Mukerist, I thought at the time, fully aware of the town’s draw and perhaps assuming that the average Joe doesn’t know the names of Britain’s wildflowers. And I don’t really blame her – there are few enough of the native species about these days to make their names familiar.

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To say their names out loud all together is my kind of liturgy – lady’s bedstraw, yellow rattle, eyebright, meadow cranesbill, self-heal, stitchwort, shepherds purse, speedwell. Sacred almost, and to be spoken of in hushed, reverential tones – or a jubilant incantation: a spell. And in one sense, these flowers were thought of as spells: self-heal for minor aches, cuts and pains; buttercups to tell if you like butter; stitchwort to relax spasms. All your cures at your feet, as it were: nature’s walk-in pharmacy for those who lived on and worked the land.

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Now that it is June and our second visit, we approach the start of the way through the meadows knowing a little of what to expect. It’s the buttercups we notice first, as though the tips of the meadows unfolding before us have been burnished with yolky liquid light. May was good for this – but June! June is godly. To see them now, numbering in the thousands and clothing the earth with gold is mirage-like. You or I would dream a place like this. It is this vague elusiveness that enriches the sense of the meadow’s impermanence. You walk through it aware of the cycle of the seasons and each flower seen is as flash-by-soon-die as if it were already cut and dried.

My gaze snags on the roughened walls of the stone barns on the approach, already looking ahead greedily, but as with so many national trails and popular beauty spots, there is a bombardment of signage at the start which arrests you just as you’re ready to begin. At Muker, these signs are mostly wooden with some plastic and metal ones for variety. Variations on ‘keep your dog on a lead’, ‘stick to the paths’ and others trumpeting the rarefied nature of the meadows jostle on a crowded wooden post. Admonitory salutations to get us on our way with the appropriate air of solemnity for the task at hand. Meadows are not to be tripped through lightly, you know.

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When we embark into the first, we do so paying the required fee – the cost is to our dignity by having to push ourselves through the stone squeeze, like camels through the eye of the needle. The passing from each meadow into the next is conducted in this fashion: through the sutures of stone squeezes in various sizes. The effect of so many uncomfortably close encounters with the local stone is to transform the simple act of passing through a gate into an event, and entry into each meadow is bargained for in this way. That’s fair enough, I think to myself, secretly enjoying the ceremony of passing through each different stone ‘cwtch’.

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I find the meadows themselves slightly self-conscious of their draw for the tourist: divided by a flagstone path up the middle with a to-ing and fro-ing of dog-walkers, families and hikers processing up the line. One man calls out in our general direction as he passes, “I’ve not seen a single insect in any of these meadows!” It’s a baffling salute to strangers on the way, as if the meadows are not performing satisfactorily in his eyes. We ourselves have witnessed many insects, and bees in particular, and I share a look with my companion, again thinking of the profesional Mukerist, preoccupied with demonstrating their conservation-mindedness, here to affirm their allegiance to the local flora and fauna.

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The valley is so far removed from its glacial founding that it feels a little like a large open nave, with worshippers treading the old stone aisle cutting up the centre. Curious. The flagged path serves the twin purposes of keeping the wilful worshipper along the straight and narrow (and in case you don’t get the message there are signs telling you to keep to the path), and forcing your momentum as you proceed ever onward. There is of course an onward inclination to every path, and I am driven by the hunt for the elusive orchid too, my heart a little sore at not having found any. But I must confess what is most attractive in the idea of a meadow is the dilatoriness it invites. The way in which it calls one to meander in amongst, not simply through. Dogs illicitly off the lead have made canine desire paths through the long grass, and Oh how I wish I could join them. With regret, I discover that the Muker hay meadows do not encourage dilly-dallying, and you are certainly actively discouraged from all thoughts of wandering in amongst them. Bent backed, our heads at flower-height, we must appear oddities to those toeing the line. At this level, the bouffant heads of the clover are rendered in beautiful and particular detail. Our survey of the flowers on offer is of necessity limited to those which can be glimpsed from the path, and our naming of them is something between tentative skill or guess work and clumsy misattribution.

It is not that I do not understand that the walker is corralled in this way to protect the flowers, but that I regret that such prohibition should be necessary at all. The path through a meadow feels as unnatural as a corset and the experience of walking it – for one who has come to see the wildflowers – thrums with latent frustration. I am heartened to see one woman, having abandoned the path, sitting against the dry stone wall of the last meadow before the river and simply relaxing into the moment as swallows jettison their bodies with abandon above.

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You can stare at a clutch of flowers against grass for a long time until the mind slowly unstitches them into their different forms. Sense is made slowly of them. More enchanting perhaps than any orchid are the heart-shaped seeds of the shepherds purse. And plantain – which I’d been used to think of as a playground weed, so sad and lank in tarmac crevices – when in flower has brown heads dusted with white pinpricks like sugar. My favourite flower glimpsed this day? The eyebright, once thought to be a remedy for soreness of the eyes; its little hairy stems support spires of brilliant and tiny white lipped flowers, not unlike those of the penstemon family. Beautiful, all clustered together, like nuns’ wimples or arms stretched wide.

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Starlings murmur out of cover
breath made visible on the air;
a stutter, recover, fetch, inflect
the sky with your feint-jive.

Dive as one without a leader,
above me conjuring song to prayer,
rippling swarm fleeing stillness,
fluid in the sky to bide.

Image (c) Pixaby.

Awakening the Moor

A throwback to my holiday last autumn…

Near the improbably named Botany Bay in the North York Moors threads Ouse Gill beck, plunging swift and strong through ironstone and shale deep down into the cut of Bransdale. Travel into the heart of the dale and you will find the National Trust’s High Lidmoor farmhouse, rented to holiday-makers like us: people on the hunt for adventure in the wildlands of the National Park; for escape from the humdrum everyday; for what Richard Mabey calls the ‘nature cure’. ‘Botany Bay’ conjures Antipodean daydreams, making its appellation here bizarre in the extreme, the village sitting in the middle of the North York Moors, where the briskly cold moorland tops brim with heather, offering a kind of wilderness irrevocably removed from the hot sand of south-of-the-equator beaches.

With music humming from the car speakers, we make our winding way through Gillamoor and begin to climb the moor. Twice we make a wrong turn just beyond Ouse Gill Beck and, my navigation skills cast into disrepute, I am relegated (perhaps fairly) to passenger only. But another thought occurs to me, legacy of countless children’s books where entrance portals to other worlds are found only after a test has been passed: the holiday destination that is hard-won is at once more worth the trouble, more private, and more likely to lead to adventures. This is a good sign, I think to myself, in this way neatly excusing my poor navigational skills. In direct proportion to the increasingly wild beauty of the landscape, dwellings of the human variety become fewer; instead gluts of beehives colonise the purpling moor-tops with their sweet promise. The bees are in heaven — in heather — up here under a sky I am not used to thinking of as so silvery-big. It hangs with infinite possibility. Scuds of cloud are caught on it, their pace leisurely and unhurried — a pace it is only natural that I will borrow for the week.

We climb the moor road which ridges the valley like a spine and startle unwary cock pheasants into berserk runs. Others pay us no mind at all and dawdle regally as if to make a point of access rights. Good for you, I think, as we go up and over the moor. It feels wonderfully remote up here, as though we are putting the rest of the world away for the week, and I can already feel myself ready to slough off my working day self: all the minutiae of life that keep us small and wearied in a busy world. A left turn with caution down the valley (the car managing the traps in the road woozily, jostling us back and forth), and then the breath held as we arrive up the gated farm track to take stock of our new fiefdom. Clouds spool out over the sky, farms pocket the fells on either side and between them fall enclosed plots laid out untidily like a quilter’s fat quarters, drystone walls threading between them. A great sycamore tree alongside the track pins the focus of the view to itself. Everything, for a week at least, is ours to the horizon line, and I am temporary custodian of this house and land.

High Lidmoor is a stone-built eighteenth-century farmhouse full of all the homely character we could wish for in a week away, and we fall into the swift game of choosing bedrooms and putting our possessions away the better to claim it as ours. I don’t think it would judge us if we spent the whole week indoors reading (my bag is bulging with books), baking and just being. Yet it’s a practical house too with its porch for walkers’ gear. Settling down in the easy chair in the living room with my book, I am facing two windows onto the little banking rise at the back of the house which leads up to the moor. Surprisingly close, the woolly white fleece of a grazing sheep passes outside, and in another minute a few more of them potter past nonchalantly mowing the grass. Then my eye focuses on the brown patches in between and I realise that there are countless rabbits among the sheep, fellow grazers enjoying an afternoon feast; little balls of brown fur almost invisible to a merely human gaze, were it not for the typewriter motion of their heads along the grass. The windows frame them like an alternative and better TV and, my book forgotten, I’m hooked.

It is the beginning of a steadfast fascination over the course of the week’s stay and – though I felt it when we first entered the comparatively small Bransdale – I begin to appreciate that this is indeed a special place, with the suggestion of being the last fully-wilded bastion in Britain. A townie by birth, I have never before seen so much wildlife so plentifully and trustingly out in the open. With the present day list of endangered species growing and the drive to conserve and ‘reserve’ natural habitats, it is refreshing to experience wildlife so blithely careless of my own human intrusion into its domain. I stand at the window for some time and watch a rabbit clean itself, totally absorbed by its fidgety and particular movements: the ears relaxed and mobile in the absence of any perceived danger; the hind leg up to scratch; the twitching of its mouth. It has not escaped me that glass divides us and I know very well that were I to venture outside into the rabbit’s world it would freeze, turn its impossibly snowy white tail (how do rabbits’ tails stay so clean?), and run. Meadow pipits arrive like leaves blown in haphazardly on the wind to their over-wintering homes, picking over the ground between their larger neighbours of grouse, partridge and pheasant.

I go out the first clear night to see the stars shining brightly, pricked into the deep blue velvet of the sky, for once uneclipsed by the cityscape smudges I am used to. Bats sound overhead with their leathery flights and I stay out a while to spot constellations, occasionally obscured by black shadows passing between me and the stars, quick as an eye blink. Leaving my curtain ajar at night, I wake with the sunrise to a new morning ritual of looking out to see what is stirring in the spell of mist that rests in the valley with the fragile impermanence of spider silk. Only the lonely sycamore punctuates it. Seeming to hover over the lane, the tree is a ghost of its yesterday self. I feel as though I could blow a puff of wind down the dale and send all the mist scattering into nothing. High Lidmoor is a place which seems to invite such fancies.

On an impulse, I want to awaken the valley out of its shroud; to stir it up; and put the dozy pheasants picking prettily like dainty pedants along the lane to flight. They’ve got the world to themselves at this hour, safe from intrusions upon their morning perambulations. With mayoral swagger, wearing their feathers with vanity as badges of office, they are curve-bellied, sleek and ponderous. Mischief takes over and before I know it I am impatiently booted and out the door onto the hard core of limestone and shingle. The pheasants have heard me coming and scramble in their undignified runs down the lane, bobbing under the fence with outraged croaks. It seems they will only fly at great need, preferring to wheel their legs like pull-along toys, but always with the perfect posture of their office. I have a fast-growing affection for them: the glib walk, the tail feather dashing and signing the air in their wake, the green neck and white collar – some of the best plumage that fowl finery has to offer.

Walking out on the tops of the moors I am at the ‘betweening’ of the seasons: summer is issuing bursts of sunshine and warmth, and autumn is beginning to claim the heather, scorching the tops of the fells with its slow, amorous burn. The arrival of the meadow pipits signals cooler autumn weather on the way, but it is still warm enough to leave my coat behind. I hug the dry stone walls (stone is the Yorkshire building element) as I ascend the hill behind the house, passing a fir plantation to my left and a view unravels before me in broad strokes of greens, purples and golds under the vast open sky. The weather changes quickly here but I have some warning: I see the rain coming up the valley and try to judge the time it will take to reach me as the grey stretches out its fingers up the hillside. I search out cover in the wide open space and hunker down into a rabbit run between deep marram grasses. It is boggy, cold and wet, and I instantly question the wisdom of this hiding place. Better to be on, to spring the fence and climb into the other fir plantation down by the pond. The dense needles of a spruce enwomb me and I am an escaped Magwitch under a desultory tree, under the clouds, under the rain. It is a humorous position in which I find myself, mingling with spiders, scarlet cap fungi, and last year’s pine needles underfoot. I am almost supine in my idiocy without my coat. But it is a close vantage point which allows me to observe the particularities of things.

Silflay for the rabbits lasts all day and there is one abiding pattern: feed, flight, hide. They are particular creatures, industrious little mowers grazing the thin grass of the fields, round little balls focussed downward. Their sidewise eyes are alert to danger in case of encroachers – least patient of strangers of all the wildlife I have encountered here. I can be 200 yards distant and my steps will render them absent. I am the flight-provoker; the scurry-hurrier; the threat-deliverer. Yet even in flight rabbits are interesting to study: their run a stretch-gather movement powered by the hind legs. First the ears twitch, noting my presence and alert for the danger I might pose and a stillness settles over them. It’s a stalemate and if I break it, that’s it, they’re off, flowing through the cracks of a dry stone wall with fluidity and economy of energy. Through improbable gaps barely a spit wide – how do they do that? During another holiday in Low Embleton, Northumberland in 1993, a rabbit became my first encounter with death. I was eight years old, and a bother in the wake of an older sister gone for a walk over the sandy hillocks on the extreme edge of the village. I had followed her and she’d probably rather not have had me slowing her down over the duney marshes. I can’t exactly remember now how we came upon the rabbit, only that across the sandy ground we sensed its distress and knew with the clarity that children sometimes have, something was badly wrong about the eyes and the limp-driven limbs. A man and his wife came along, assessed the situation with pinched frowns, and all of a sudden I was clutched tightly to a stranger’s chest and then – whack! – the rabbit was no more. A swift compassion. Soft shock, the thump of rock through bone. Something alive was no more. This was the first I knew of death in the wild and the first I knew of death as a kindness. I was shaken and a little numb as I recounted what had happened to mum back at our week’s home. Myxomatosis she said, a big word for an eight year old to swallow. It came to the UK in the 1950s shortly after it was trialled as a ‘pest’ control in Australia. 99% of our native population of rabbits died in a few years, but numbers have since recovered. Looking about me now, I believe it. Rabbits have the moors almost to themselves up here, more numerous than the game birds. I will always be grateful for the kindness of the stranger who held me tight to her so I wouldn’t see her husband lift and lower the rock in his hand.

It is the curious loneliness that afflicts the nature-lover the most: that which we wish to cherish and be near, we cause to disappear. It is a shame and I regret it: to approach the natural world with wonder and joy and yet feel myself to be excluded – by virtue of humanness – from it. But it is the curse of our over-industrialized, intensively-farmed age. We love the wild, yet at best our presence constantly transforms it and, at worse, destroys it. These are the melancholy thoughts that plague me in this kind of lonely, nature-retreating funk. I can watch the wildlife and wonder at it, but I will never be wilded into it. I am in a world of vital bodies, could I but see them, yet I feel myself to be utterly alone up here, on the crown of the fell, on the cusp of the world.

Perhaps it’s the slower pace of things, or the delicious-tasting water piped in from a nearby spring, or the sheer availability of so much wildlife to watch at close quarters, but gradually over the course of the week the tensions of elsewhere ease and I am delightfully weathered into the rhythms of the cottage, birds, sheep and rabbits outside its windows. Waking with, watching and following the wildlife outdoors becomes my routine and my obsession. Swallows stoop and swerve outside my window one morning, swooping through the air in swinging motions to catch insects ready for their migratory journeys to Africa. Strange to think of such a staple of the countryside soon to be flying over sub-Saharan dust. Their destination on each scoop-dive is the eaves outside my window, a muster line on the edge of the roof. No telegraph wires here for them to settle on as they prepare for their great journey. The risks are high, some will not return. With the changing seasons, all creatures are having to adapt – the swallows now arrive a week earlier each year than they did in the 1970s, and I wonder if in fact they tarry later as well, putting off the inevitable, as I do before the commute to work?

Like the swallows, I will return here, and slip once again into the rhythms of Bransdale.

HL24

The Day of the Corvids

As seen in the February 2018 issue of Dalesman magazine.

Last night was snow-cold, the wind coming in from the west, whistling down the chimney, and I went to bed with an extra blanket and a childish hope for snow (the proper job stuff) come morning. I woke to a bright white light streaming in through the uncurtained sliver of window and rushed to see – not the immense powdery drifts of my childhood when mum would dress me in the pink “Michelin” body suit – but a clear sky with a wafer moon hung past its time and a thin crisping of snow, gift of the night. Enough to put a smile on my face and call me outdoors.

A snow day and its promise of adventure prove that snow transforms the spirit just as much as the landscape it blankets. I have a spring in my step as I begin my walk to Trench Meadows to watch the birds, ignoring the sullen portent of the one-for-sorrow magpie on its straight arrow-flight – the first corvid of the day, part of the genus which includes rooks, ravens, crows, jackdaws and jays. Snow crystals encrust the roof tiles and duvet the cars. The pavements are rinked with ice and puddles are crackle-glazed with it. The feet retain a memory of how to walk on snow – of how it crunches and makes an awkward impression of the foot and, compacted, slides me as I go. Firing off the top of Baildon Moor, a cold hard sun etches everything sharply, chiselling at it like a knife. Reaching a grassy verge, I put my hand down to touch a snow wavelet (only word for it) and find it a surprise to the skin: hard and smooth as glass and tingling with cold.

On the way I stop by a hornbeam hedge I know to listen in on the sparrows that have set up residence inside, chirruping busily, invisibly and it must be said very loudly so that you cannot help but stop to wonder at the commotion as you pass. Hidden within their hedge stronghold, their cries are a playful “nothing to see here.” Just flashes of colour arcing between the close-grown branches. Pausing with my ear cocked towards it, I feel like Gulliver in Lilliput, wondering what all the different twitterings mean. Great tits swoop exuberantly from small front garden trees in flashes of yellow and warn each other of my approach. While among the birds, my presence is foretold along the hedgerows as that of an intruder.

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Trench Meadows is designated an area of special scientific interest because it includes patches of rarefied and much prized acid grassland. In early summer a litany of wildflowers drive up between the grasses: orchids, self-heal, meadowsweet, cow parsley, dock, nettle, greater plantain, creeping buttercup, harebells, knapweed, loosestrife, bird’s-foot trefoil and thistles, later to be joined by the marching blue of the devil’s bit scabious and the sulphur yellow of ragwort. Birds are attracted by this superabundance of wildflowers (the meadows in summer teem with them) and their seeds, a staple of their winter diets. The tramping of the bullocks let loose in autumn helps to re-sow the flower meadows, and the birds join in the effort of renewing it. Moles plough the ground (their mounds today dusted white), turning manure and seed under, ready for next summer. It is a habitat in perfect and rare balance with itself, supporting a vast array of invertebrates including moths, butterflies, grasshoppers and red soldier beetles — and these in their turn feed the birds.

I find the gateposts at the bottom of the lower meadow rimed with velvet ice that slicks the fingers with remembered cold. The moisture in the wood has been cooled and then frozen overnight, expanding out of the posts to create ice-prisms that glint-warp the light. Snow is scribbled untidily into the meadow dips and edges and the glare of reflected sunlight makes it hard at first to see the birds; it is easier like a spy to pick up their chatter. I collect birdcalls at random and try to detect which species I’m hearing. With diligent watching, I glimpse them on the wing: blackbirds, red-bibbed robins, sparrows and tits flit deftly in between the steel stems of the brambles with busyness and purpose. The bones of the trees and shrubs are exposed with the fall and decay of leaves, freeing up uninterrupted sightlines with which to observe bird flights.

In the middle-storey branches, wood pigeons are making clumsy landings and unceremoniously inserting themselves on an already crowded perch, no matter whether their fellows are shoved off or not. Rose-breasted nuthatches drilling their beaks into low-slung branches add a different layer of sound, and in the foreground tiny clutches of goldcrests hop from grass to scabious stalks in dainty whorls of flight. There is such a rising chorus of bird calls that it’s as though a great drama is taking place at the avian level, from which I am excluded. Perhaps this has always been going on just fifteen minutes from my doorstep and I am only now tuning in to it. Still higher above, the sun catches at the white wings of common gulls, wheeling in a loose pack, keeping a weather eye on the lie of the land below for any choice scraps. Tens of thousands of feathers shutter and bar the light over me.

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The black shadows which I hardly notice at first, so ubiquitous hereabouts, are the crows, corvus corone — the birds everyone thinks they know and which Chaucer dubbed the ‘jangling’ bird of woe. These are the ones I’ve particularly come to study, learn and glean the habits of. Crows on the top-loftiest perches of the meadows’ birches and oaks, sitting singly, lonely, on improbably slender branches. Crows on the ground carrying out forensic searches with their plague-doctor beaks, turning over the snow for any signs of life: a dusting of white on the black lacquer of their bills and the sheen of their feathers. Crows stooping in the sky crying their guttural, malcontent rawks. Close to, the power in that 45cm wingspan is raptor-like and I am captive to its flight.

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I became intrigued by crows a couple of months ago when one appeared from its perch at sunset and commenced an exhibitionist rawk! rawk! rawk! interspersed with loud mechanical clicks of its beak, producing a sound like two halves of a coconut shell being snapped together. It was utterly mesmerising and confounding to watch, the crow often seeming to pick the elevated platform of a rock or bench from which to declaim. Though I had not witnessed this call before, it seemed to be an end-of-day ritual, carried out with the nonchalance of routine, like brushing teeth.

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Today the crows are so assiduous in their uniform searches among the snow-stiffened grasses you’d think a murder had been discovered – and in a way it has for that is the collective noun for crows: a murder of them. Yet, bent in scimitar curves, beaks to the earth, displaying their elegant feather pantaloons, they amuse rather than threaten. One – a jester – puffs up its feathers and hops crab-wise, looking in my direction with an oblique, obsidian eye. It dances over the snow and when I look away at one of its companions starts up a petulant karr! keearr! to draw me in again to its antics.

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Two hours of counting crows and the light is beginning to fade. Oak branches with gluts of them in their weave stretch into a snow sky, pink and buttery at the horizon line leaching into cool blue. The air is desolate with cold. The crows swoop against it like bits of cloth caught on the up-rise, to eventually land and re-commence their calling. I spy a second magpie and my thought follows the nursery rhyme: two for joy. All the promise of spring lies under the snow, under the crows, in the cold hard ground.

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Air-dancing over Howber Hill

A local chieftain lies up here, somewhere, in some state. It is a good vantage point from which to spend an eternity: the big sky limitless above you, your lands laid out below, now chequered by modern-day field boundaries. Not much is known about the hill before the Bronze Age chieftain’s bones claimed it, but since then it has been the site of a beacon, ready to light the alarum in times of war, a remnant of a now invisible chain linking people across the country like an umbilical cord with the threats of conflict beyond their domestic and agricultural lives. Now the beacon and the chieftain slumber and no one watches on the hill.

Howber Hill sits next door to Beamsley on the extreme edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and has a parish boundary lying across it, visible only on maps. I like to think that parishioners of old would have met here once yearly with sticks, halfway up the fell side, to beat the bounds and make their claim to their bit of the hill, brandishing them in mock anger at their neighbours. As a hunk of earth settled like a benign megalith into its landscape, it gives the impression of great antiquity, compounded by the history bound up in its name. Howber Hill is named for the burial mound that lies at its top, now signified by a stone cairn two metres tall: ‘how’ meaning burial place, and ‘ber’ being a corruption of ‘burg’, stone. Rumour has it that the cairn itself has been something of a moveable feast over the years, and, sometimes spoken of as the site of the burial mound, it has as a result been confusingly elided with it. Where the chieftain now lies, who knows. The spot will have been selected for the 360-degree views it commands over the landscape: towards Rombalds Moor past Chelker Reservoir in the south, and over Beamsley and Wharfedale to the north. From sunrise over the ridge of The Old Pike to sunset over Skipton and the distant Pendle Hill, the chieftain presides over the valley, dreaming of old territories.

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Looking up at the summit of the hill today I know myself to be a soft-core hill-walker, braced for a climb, my legs keen and stretch-slackened for the uphill, but buzzing slightly with anticipation of the effort. The cairn can be seen very easily from the road below, with its distinctive pinnacle, a wobble-shy stack of assorted stones that are defying gravity and pointing skywards like a magician’s hat or an admonitory finger. Confession: I have never climbed a mountain, these generally being considered to comprise peaks of over 2000 ft. The summit of Howber Hill stands a mere 1070 ft (326 m) above sea level (and many of those we’ve already done in the car). It is by no one’s measure a mountain, but it’s stiff walking over heather and bog, riddled with old quarry pits and spring troughs.

We start with the gentle ascent, plotting a sickle path about the foot of the hill. A summit gives to the walker the something-to-get-to, an uphill aimfulness that focuses the feet and mind. But seeing the summit at the start and then following a circuit that initially leads away from it along Badgers Gate feels a counter-intuitive sort of walking. I am a badger with its fur rubbed wrong, looking back at the summit cairn we’re aiming for, but away from which we’re moving inexorably across the reaches of Langbar Moor. Keeping hard by the wall on our right, we part where it bends clockwise and we, going widdershins, meet the first stiff bluff of climb.

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Once I let go of the summit, trusting that we’ll get to it, I begin to enjoy the purpley-brown moor ground with its heather armour that is laid before us – the heath’s miniature forest, shin-high, and frothing below our knees. We pass managed copses of larches, burning yellow like torches, the needles bleaching and preparing to line the ground. We furrow our way through undulations of heather, its stems twiggy, and its bells paper-dry and crackling underfoot like pot pourri. Nan Shepherd said there was no bliss like walking barefoot over heather, but the ground here is bogged with water from countless local springs and sucks at our feet in wet slurps until we claim higher ground. In places we chance it between spongey outcrops of sphagnum moss, its starry tentacles drip-laden and greener than any green you see in town. I see sheep dung and think of its brown ooze between my toes – not today the barefoot confidence of the all-seasons walker. I’m sure-shod in boots that squelch and shift on the boggy mud-trails.

The water bubbles up from nowhere. There are several wells hereabouts: Pemberton and Riding Stone – but I do not see their hiding places. Wells and springs used to be marked with stones at their mouths and ‘clooties’ representing wishes would hang from a nearby tree, dipped in the waters of the well for luck or fancy. I’d decided on a pin to cast in if I saw a well-spring, but there are no markers of the old water holes now. Just the sphagnum bogs that pillow in generous tumuli under the soles of our going, and the unerringly upward shocks of marram grass which, folded underfoot, make a safe over-bog path.

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My eyes down, seeking the next bit of dry ground, I see patches of an unfamiliar scat – not sheep, nor rabbit, but little white-tipped brown caterpillars, and I think to myself that these are the droppings of the red grouse. We saw a pheasant in a field on our drive up from Ilkley, but grouse is the main game bird up here, though this is our first clue as yet to its presence. The moor heather is pregnant with them, invisibly, like silent children whom only absolute necessity will conjure forth. On towards The Old Pike, our steps soon cajole them out of hiding. There, quick with its indignation and corkscrewing out of the heather, is the first; almost black against the grasses and soon hidden away again, left in peace to peck off the heather seeds. The cry of the red grouse has a wind-up quality to it: the call starts very fast and garbled but graduates to a few short chokes spaced at longer intervals. We hear them cry in their heather hides at 200 yards’ distance, from the safe confines of which they chortle at us as if defying us to discover where they lie. Red eye crests and plump bodies set low to the earth and blending with their cover. A lot of comical blether at our passing. It raises a smile and an irreverent chuckle in answer.

The path is not to be trusted, crossed with streams and rocks, and peters out amid the heather upland, leading us to bury our feet and lower legs more deeply into it. There’s red grass intermingled with the brown blaze of heather – flares of colour. We are knee-deep struggling up the hill, balance becoming sketchy as the wiry heather trips and tricks us at will. It’s a small relief when we come to one of the moor’s bald patches where the heather has been scorched off in a controlled burn. This allows fresh tender shoots to break the earth – a delicacy for the grouse. From a distance the moor’s patches are flayed skin or seasonal maltings. A rest and a breather looking back down over the patchwork pasture below – off toward Ilkley from where we’ve driven and a town that we know. Dad’s eye is caught by a large bird of prey westwards cutting soundlessly through the air – a buzzard perhaps. It hovers for a moment before flying over the ridge. That large span of wings bearing it effortlessly – no call, no sound at all from this silent stalker on the breeze. A king of the air, once very rare but now on the increase.

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Pausing a moment to look up at the ridge-top, I’m startled by a sudden flocking of birds, magicked into being, on the wing, on the air, as if just for us who stop to look at their antic-soaring. Moving as one, swooping and diving, they are a bellows at work on the wind. This, I think, is air-dancing. Not starlings, but paler and larger, moving together down and over the heather. I wish I knew the names for everything I see out in the wild but I’m tongue-tied with no proper nouns for the birds hanging and flitting before my eyes. If I had their name it would make them more real somehow; but as it is they are like a dream dancing before my eyes, swift on the up-rise and weaving in amongst one another. I hear the lift of their wing-feathers as a ruffle of silk kissing the air. They draw back and forth, once, twice, thrice, and then are gone – tipped over the side of the moorland and into the valley, pouring themselves on as we look homewards and wonder if they were real.

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With the help of the occasional snow pole, the path is retrieved from wherever it had got to and the cairn’s back in view. I pick up a small flat stone from beside a patch of waxcaps to add to the stack. I was here. The summit in sight, my enthusiasm redoubles and I plough on up the rocky path. Just as we’re cresting the rise of the ridge and our goal’s in sight, the flock returns, swooping low above our heads down the side of the fell and we are a part of their great sink and swell of rhythm over the moorland. Their pale underbellies sail above us. The grouse are untroubled by their low rushing flight, as distant as wind through pine-tops and close as breath puffing past the cheek. I wish them back, but they vanish out of sight.

At the top, the world’s lidless and open to the elements; the ground scabbed with rocks; and the cairn a grey eminence. I place my rock with an odd sort of anti-ceremony and look down the steep north-west side of the hill. We remark in surprise when we see more cairns on the way back down the ridge path: another and another marching in lesser beacons down the hill. Dad offers wryly, They’re the cairns of the people who didn’t make it to the top, and we share a laugh at our own expense.

For it is not so very far to climb after all, certainly not as crows, and other birds, fly.

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