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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Cabinet of Curiosities 1

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.

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