Simon Armitage on grouse

Moorland,_Cotherstone

Poet Simon Armitage watched grouse as he passed through the blanket bog of Cotherstone Moor, and wrote in ‘Walking Home’, his travelogue along the Pennine Way:

The next stretch is over another barren elevation, populated by small cairns at regular intervals, like relics of a primitive religion or ritualistic practice, their form and function not yet fully understood. There are dozens of them, and dozens of red grouse too, whose numbers on this moor seem absurd, even to the point where they explode out from under our feet every ten yards or so or waddle off in family groups of seven or eight led by the mother, so many in fact that it would probably be harder to miss a grouse with a shotgun, even when firing blind drunk, than to hit one. I’ve heard it said that to create a diversion and allow her young to escape the female grouse will sometimes feign injury by dragging a wing and floundering along the ground, but I’ve never seen it, even though on these overstocked acres some of these birds are almost within grabbing distance

Image: “Moorland, Cotherstone – geograph.org.uk – 621337” by Andrew Smith. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Simon Armitage in Kielder Forest

Pennine poet Simon Armitage passed through Kielder Forest, Europe’s biggest man-made forest, in his ‘Walking Home’, a dour and wonderful travelogue along the Pennine Way:

As well as providing an infinite supply of liquid refreshment for the region’s midge population, Kielder Water was built to service the heavy industries of England’s north-east coast, but by the time the reservoir was opened those industries had all but disappeared. Some claim that Kielder is not only a white elephant but an environmental calamity, the monoculture of Sitka spruce and its lookalikes signalling the end of biodiversity and effectively carpeting over what was once a rare and treasured moorland habitat. Those with vested interests argue otherwise, that the forest provides sanctuary for endangered wildlife such as red squirrel and raptors, that it offers endless recreational facilities, and that the reservoir, in a warmer world with an uncertain meteorological future, is a well that never runs dry.

Monoculture possibly, monotonous without doubt. In fact it’s plain old boring, slogging along the gravel access road with a drawn curtain of trees on either side. Review in The Guardian of Walking Home.

Field Notes from a Hidden City: An Urban Nature Diary

Field Notes from a Hidden City

Field Notes from a Hidden City: An Urban Nature Diary by Esther Woolfson looks at the “hidden city” of Aberdeen, meditating on our complex relationships with the natural world. She intimately portrays the wildlife of this northern city.

In the night a few times, I’ve been wakened by the stillness. Even the gulls are silent. Here, you’re often woken by the sounds of gulls. Even when it’s nearly morning, in winter darkness, it still feels like night, their cries arching lightly in the air over the silent city. I waken and then as I sleep again, think about the sounds they make which might be of warning or joy, or grief, but which are most probably an unfathomable Larus chorus of dialogue and exchange. For me, gulls’ voices are a welcome wakening, a kind of wild music, a reminder of where I am in that moment of renewed consciousness: a city on the edge of the sea, at the north-eastern rim of a northern island between the western coasts of Scandinavia and the eastern beginnings of North America, the southern reaches of circumpolar north.

Looking down from a plane window when you’re flying towards it from the south, for a long way below you see only rock and grass and fields and suddenly it’s there, a tight grey city with sea and water almost surrounding it. It’s a city perched on the edge of water, a city of two rivers, blown by every wind named and unnamed, by ban-gull and haugull, blinter and flist. There are days in the wind and rain when it feels as though the whole of it, every edifice and structure, every garden, streetlight and tree will detach and set out determinedly to sea. The grey granite from which Aberdeen is built can look only a semitone lighter or darker than the clouds and sky. We’re part of a thin string of cities, a chain of northern places, poised along this numbered scale, the circles of latitude; the last habitation before the real cold begins, on the fringes of subarctic ice and snow, at the northern reaches of an earth circling in an ellipsis around the sun.

The Guardian review ” “Just like the herring gull a century ago, contemporary nature writing is migrating into cities, albeit with publishing trends as much as evolution forcing the pace. Field Notes takes the form of a year’s worth of diary entries, starting in the depths of winter.”

Robert Macfarlane at Cape Wrath

CapeWrathFromSeawardByColinWheatleyFeb2007

Cape Wrath s the most north-westerly point in the mainland Britain. Robert Macfarlane described arriving at the cape in Wild Places.

I looked out to sea and watched the waves build as they approached the land, curling up out of the water along their length, like flicked ropes. The air above the sea was live with scores of birds: fulmars planing the wind in white curves, stubby guillemots like winged cigars, whirring along just above the waves, gulls making their weightless turns and angles, and giving their quick cries. So much life was at work in this place! I picked out one fulmar and followed its motion for a few minutes, watching the laterals of its gliding wings, wondering what sort of pattern its complex flight-path would make if it could be plotted. Out of sight to the east were the Clo Mor Cliffs, home to a far bigger seabird colony: tens of thousands of puffins, razorbills, guillemots, fulmars and kittiwakes.

George Orwell and wildlife

George Orwell had a surprising and deep interest in wildlife and nature, going back to his childhood. In letters from school he wrote about caterpillars and butterflies and he had a keen interest in ornithology. He wrote about wild flowers and birds in England, the wildlife of Morocco, even frogs in Spain. He recorded many interesting diary entries from his cottage at Wallington. Here for example is an entry to his diary from 16 April 1939. Many more entries on nature here at the Orwell Diaries

Rather chilly with sunny intervals, not much wind. A very light shower in the morning.
Cowslips in flower here & there. This I think is rather early. Bluebells also beginning, a few almost in full bloom. This undoubtedly is unusually early. Wild cherries in full bloom. Sycamore leaves opening. Apple blossom almost about to open. Another thrush sitting [on] eggs in the hedge. Found a blackbird’s nest with eggs. These are the only nests I have found hitherto.
The pond up by the church has become so stagnant that it no longer has duckweed, only the scummy green stuff. Nevertheless there are still a few newts in it.
Summer time began today, M’s morning yield consequently small, but picked up in the evening.
Ten eggs (price of eggs sold yesterday 1/9 a score).

And on 24 October

There are now 2 barn owls which live in the stumpy elm tree, & evidently it is they that make the sawing noise. I suppose these are the ones that used to be called screech-owls, & the ordinary brown owl is the one that makes the to-whoo noise.

And 5 November

Some wind in the morning, then nice sunny weather. Ground has dried up somewhat. In the evening violent wind & a few drops of rain. The wind actually blew the roof off the small henhouse. Enormous flocks of starlings, some tens of thousands at a time, going over with a noise that sounds like heavy rain. The leaves are mostly down now. Elder leaves just coming down. As I remember it the elms are being stripped much earlier this year than most.

Later after reading a newspaper article about the slaughter of barn owls and kestrels, supposedly to protect pheasants, Orwell countered in his own newspaper column in Tribune of 5 May 1944 entitled ‘We Are Destroying Birds that Save Us’,

 ‘beneficial birds suffer from human ignorance. There is senseless persecution of the kestrel and barn owl. No two species of birds do better work for us.’

Unfortunately it isn’t even from ignorance. Most of the birds of prey are killed off for the sake of that enemy of England, the pheasant. Unlike the partridge, the pheasant does not thrive in England, and apart from the neglected woodlands and the vicious game laws that it has been responsible for, all birds or animals that are suspected of eating its eggs or chicks are systematically wiped out. Before the war, near my village in Hertfordshire, I used to pass a stretch of fence where the gamekeeper kept his ‘larder’. Dangling from the wires were the corpses of stoats, weasels, rats, hedgehogs, jays, owls, kestrels and sparrow-hawks. Except for the rats and perhaps the jays, all of these creatures are beneficial to agriculture. The stoats keep down the rabbits, the weasels eat mice, and so do the kestrels and sparrow-hawks, while the owls eat rats as well. It has been calculated that a barn owl destroys between 1,000 and 2,000 rats and mice in a year. Yet it has to be killed off for the sake of this useless bird which Rudyard Kipling correctly described as ‘lord of many a shire’.

Roger Deakin in Tiger Wood

Wildwood deakin

Roger Deakin memorably described a spring evening in Tiger Wood in Suffolk in “Wildwood”. The wood’s name comes from the discovery of a curved canine of a sabre-tooth tiger unearthed here some years back.

Ronald and I had walked through Tiger Wood in the snow the winter before. The day was brilliant, the trees sparkling and frilled with frost. A white line of snow was pencilled up the north-east side of each tree. John Nash loved woods, particularly in winter, when their architecture is revealed. The lines of the nude trees are so much stronger.  The bones of the landscape stand out. He loved the ruins of woods : dead trees fallen over one another, fungi and brittle twigs. He hated woods to be tidied, and the fashion for management that rubbed out all evidence of past inhabitants, all natural continuity of living denizens.

The bee hill of Shotover

Hugh Warwick The Beauty in the Beast

The wooded hill of Shotover is a hotspot for bees, with 99 species recorded here between 2000 and 2004, out of a number of nearly 250 for Britain (24 species of bumblebees, around 225 species of solitary bee and just a single honeybee) . The number may be so high compared with elsewhere because the hill is close to Oxford and therefore has been subject to intense study since the early 20th century.

Hugh Warwick’s delightful The Beauty in the Beast portrays some of the Britain’s most iconic wildlife and above all the enthusiasts who fight for their cause. He visited Shotover with bee expert Ivan Wright:

Ivan has lived on the borders of Shotover for over 20 years. Shotover Hill is a remnant of the large medieval royal forest of Shotover that almost encircled medieval Oxford. There are steep slopes, ancient oaks and well-worn paths. It is pleasingly wild, big enough to lose oneself in but not so big as to get lost. The steepness of the hill has held development at bay for generations, but as the demand for land has increased, so has the potential threat to Shotover from developers and planners.

And later:

The data revealed Shotover as a ‘hotspot’ for bees in Oxfordshire, one of the best sites in the county, with ninety-nine bee species found in the area by Ivan between 2000 and 2004. So he was able to argue for improved protection for Shotover, and enhanced its status as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Solitary bees have helped to protect the hill, and now the reason why we were laying frisbees out in transects became clearer. The bees do not spend their entire lives up on the hill; it does not provide the diversity of plants they need to survive. So the bees need to commute to feed on nectar and pollen from a variety of flowers; the nectar provides sugar for energy and honey, while pollen provides protein. And if the land around Shotover is desertified by oil-seed rape and concrete, the bees will disappear, as they will have no chance to feed themselves or their subterranean grubs. So Ivan wants to expand the area that is safeguarded to include some of the agricultural land that, when managed sensitively, can generate rich sources of bee food.

Full extract here

Wilds of the Upper Thames


A short extract from a wonderful documentary with Robert Macfarlane: The Other Side of Essex – Unexpected Wilderness, a  year-long exploration of Essex right on the county’s edge, on the north shore of the upper Thames.

“Essex illustrates perfectly how, across England, we misunderstand, overlook and underestimate the power of our own wild places. This film reveals our misconceptions, and brings reassuring and surprising news – and hopefully will encourage us to act fast to protect our last remaining native wildernesses.”

Simon Prosser on reading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks

Simon Prosser on reading Robert Macfarlane’s LandmarksPenguin publisher Simon Prosser on his experience reading Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane.

“When I finished reading the first draft of Robert Macfarlane’s new book on landscape and language, I found that my vocabulary had notably and delightfully expanded:

I now knew ‘rionnach maoim’ (a Hebridean Gaelic term for ‘the shadows cast by cumulus clouds on moorland on a sunny, windy day’); ‘smeuse’ (Sussex dialect for ‘the hole in the base of a hedgerow made by the repeated passage of a small animal’); ‘af’rug’ (a Shetland word for ‘the reflex of a wave after it has struck the shore’); and ‘wind-fucker’ (the perfect East Anglian dialect nickname for a kestrel), along with ‘blonking’ (snowing), ‘babbing’ (fishing for eels) and ‘jirglin’ (playing about with water).”

All of these words, and thousands more, collected over a decade by Rob from the Shetlands to Cornwall, from Pembrokeshire to Suffolk, and from old Norse to Romani, appear in Landmarks, in the nine glossaries which interleave the ten chapters of the book. (Landmarks also describes Rob’s  journeys into the mines of Cumbria, the moors of the Hebrides and the corries of the Cairngorms, as well as his meetings with glossarians, poets and word-collectors up and down the country.)

Landmarks is a book about the power of language – ‘strong style, single words’ in Rob’s phrase – to shape our sense of place. It is both a  field-guide to the literature he loves (Nan Shepherd, Barry Lopez and Roger Deakin and more) and also a ‘Word-Hoard’, to borrow the title of the opening chapter. Over the course of the book we can chart a kind of love-affair between writer and language. The authors Rob is most drawn to tend to write with an exact and committed intensity about their chosen landscapes, in styles strong enough to revise our imaginary relations with places. They aim, in the words from Emerson which Rob quotes in the book, to ‘pierce…rotten diction and fasten words to visible things’, They are celebrants of the specific – and so too is Rob. More here

The home of Steve Dilworth

Robert Macfarlane described his visit to the home on the Isle of Lewis of landscape artist Steve Dilworth in ‘The Old Ways’.

“These are some of the materials he uses in his work: the skulls, beaks, bodies, eyes, skins and wings of herons, wrens, guillemots, gannets, woodcock, fulmars, swans, owls, sparrow-hawks, buzzards, black-backed gulls, hooded crows, puffin, sand-eels, john dories and dragonflies; tallow, lard, blubber, sperm; seawater collected during equinoctial gales, freshwater gathered from a deep well, still air gathered in a chapel, storm air gathered in the overhang of a boulder; the north wind, the south wind; the bone, baleen and teeth of minke and humpback whales; the vertebrae of porpoises and sheep; bronze, brass, silver, nickel, copper; dolerite, gneiss, granite, soapstone, alabaster; ten-thousand-year-old bog oak, walnut, mulberry, rosewood; the prow of a fishing boat; hawking lures; sea-beans, sand-dollars, sea-urchins; eggs, feathers and sand.

These are some of the things he has made: a lead casket, barred with whale-bone and bound with rope, containing a phial of storm-water; a foot-long mulberry chamber, the shape of a coffee bean, ribbed in steel, that contains the body of a blackbird; a hollow case made of a shell of lignum vitae and a shield of whalebone, containing loose dolphin teeth, the whole bound with fishing rope; a walnut sarcophagus, edged and locked with brass, containing a bird made of bog-oak, beaked and tailed with bronze; a hollow soapstone cone containing hundreds of dried fish eyes; a pair of herons, kills from a fish-farm, locked into an embrace, their wings hung with hundreds of fish-hooks, their legs bound with fine black cord (archaeopteryx-fetish; an avian BDSM dance).

It can be hard to know how to describe the work: totem objects, sarcophagi, talismans, effigies, rattles, rocking stones, throwing stones, kists, charms, fetishes, jujus. Dredgings from the common consciousness. Archetypes materialised. Hints of mountebank recipes, crocked cure-alls (hold this and it will heal you…) but also entreaties to faith. One piece, the body of a wren sealed in a dark-oak kist, with jointed bronze legs folding out from the underside, is designed to be ‘thrown into an inner landscape’.

It can be hard to know how to describe Dilworth: wizard, shaman, showman, mountebank, Jungian, joker, crypto-zoologist, votary of the deathly and the defiled. He is tall and warlock-ish in appearance. Those who know the work but not him imagine him to be severe, forbidding. In fact, he laughs and jokes almost unstoppably. This is a good thing. A shaman who took himself seriously would be insufferable. He does, though, take his work very seriously indeed.”

Steve Dilworth’s website

Robert Macfarlane’s favourite trail

Rhenigidale path

Robert Macfarlane describes his favourite trail in this article here. It goes from the the town of Tarbert to the village of Rhenigidale on the Isle of Harris.

Along the southeastern coast of the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides runs one of the most beautiful paths I know: an old green track, only six miles or so long, that joins the town of Tarbert to the village of Rhenigidale. Two summers ago I spent a week walking across Lewis and North Harris, camping in shielings and fishing in lochs as I went, finally reaching Rhenigidale, where I slept in the little white-walled youth hostel.

The next morning, I followed the green track west to Tarbert, contouring first above steep-sided sea coves and then dropping into a glen called Trollamaraig in which a dwarf forest of willow, aspen, honeysuckle and foxglove flourishes. Then it was up, steeply up, zigzagging the east face of a hill called the Scriob until the path eased and led me between two peaks — Trolamal and Beinn Tharsuinn. On that clear day the landscape to my west was wonderfully visible, laid out like 
a map: an intricate weave of moor, crag, scarp and shining lochans. A storm blew in and over, and I walked the final miles along shining tracks 
and under rainbows.

Photo “The Rhenigidale path looking back down the route of ascent.” © Copyright Jimmy Hill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Geograph

Birkdale beach by Jean Sprackland

Strands – A Year of Discoveries on the Beach

The Birkdale coast was intimately portrayed in Jean Sprackland’s Strands – A Year of Discoveries on the Beach (2012) as the poet explores her local beach for a year before leaving for London, weaving a tale of shipwrecks, natterjack toads, neolithic footprints, jellyfish and strandline findings. This is a celebration of beachcombing which turns up everything from mermaid’s purses to buried cars.  She writes in the introduction to the book:

Of all the British coastline, this is hardly the prettiest or the most unspoilt: its sands are not the most golden, and there are no rockpools or hidden coves. Neither is it the most dramatic: no pounding surf, no rugged cliffs. Low tide can take the sea nearly two miles from shore. Stand on the beach at Ainsdale, on any reasonably bright day, and you can see the offshore wind farm in the Mersey estuary. Turn and face the other way, and there are the familiar Blackpool landmarks: the tower, the rollercoaster. But in really clear weather the bigger picture is visible: the southern fells, the Clwyddian hills, the pale but unmistakable shape of Snowdon. This is a place of big skies and lonely distances, a shifting palette of greys and blues; a wild, edge-of-the-world place.

For a general natural history and historical guide to the coast see Sands of Time Revisited (2009). Difficult to find outside Merseyside but highly recommended.