What have you been missing this year, in these strange ‘no travel’ months?
Going West is the thing we have missed the most, it would have been high on our list of trips, back towards my Druid’s homeland so dear. We miss the moors and ancient stones, the pasties and the ale, the Cornish drizzle, the Dartmoor mist, and the sun sparkled sea where gannets sail and the rainbows caused by hail! Sharing Lizard views clear out to sea with raven, chough and seal and standing high on Chapel Carne, looking out, across, turning right around seeking views from shore to shore and as far as St Michael’s Mount. I miss the rocky heights of Hound Tor with sun baked granite and wild bees and the mossy greens of Wistman’s Wood that make my fingers itch to paint, but most of all I miss this bird – my Dipper bird – the bird that first I saw as a child nature nerd and to search along that same bubbling bouncing river is my every holiday mission. The Dipper bird that became my secret passion nearly 50 year ago and in these years of necessary nature conservation lives on still in that same location, so this year it is me that’s missing, I wonder if he is missing me, that strange woman in purple with a habit to stand and stare? So if anyone is down Tavistock way and glimpses my little friend perhaps you would safe the memory and be kind enough to share.
As April dawns and warmth returns simple pleasures and moments can be grasped, time to walk alone, coat unfastened, arms wide to the sun, along the roadside frothed with the cream of blackthorn hedge that hides the singing wren, chiffchaff, blackcap and gives its shelter to purple violets hidden low, the crumpled blue of an egg shell hatched, a new life given, a puff of breeze, a downy feather, mislaid by a hen pheasant hurrying, dashing into the glade beyond the meadow of week old lambs dancing.
The day is early, no rush for most folk confined from play, the air is pale, opaque like diluted milk, neither mist nor fog just still, soft, a whiter shade of pale. A perfect morning to share, with a loved one, best friend. Heading westwards below the ash trees, branches winter grey still, turning around to look back a sudden sun winks to lemon drench the fading whiteness, to transform the view into the start of a golden day.
The path is clear, where winter rains filled ditches and drains the woodsman’s work is stark and bare, hedge banks scraped, dredged, scratched with giant diggers teeth, grooves dug into clay and sandstone devoid of flower or leaf , seeming in tune with today’s strange changing, stripped, bleached, sanitised world, waiting, waiting for green birth that heals, that will heal our lives like it heals the field furrows from straight, deep wounds to healthy clean green with crops of rapeseed, clover and wheat.
The sun dried mud along the path, pitted with the slotted tracks of numerous deer on past winter foraging trips leads us into spring, a soft greenness of bud burst and blossom envelopes us and underfoot carpets of last season’s crisp dry leaves part to reveal primrose, stitchwort, violet and windflower, blooms that seem to dance and sigh with newfound pleasure. Wrens sing from the bright green mossy roots of oaks and hawthorn ‘may’ strains in its buds desperate to join in with the sloe bush bloom.
The air is soft and green with sudden spring encouraging us into believing it begins, a new season of growth and fertility only to be harshly interrupted, briefly fooled that the season moves too fast, as suddenly a lingering flock of chattering winter fieldfares gatecrash the serenity with their noisy boisterous dash to be travelling home in their lateness. Like an unexpected punctuation mark as if to burst a growing bubble of hope, bringing doubt into a greening illusion, in this doubtful, untrustworthy time of non-believing, a gloomy news headline after a sunny weather forecast. But it is only a comma, a pause for breath as stream banks become lined with spikes of green, wild garlic leaves scenting the air above cool clear water tinted like milk-less transparent tea and in an instant the harsh beauty of the cold winter birds is gone and the bubble remains intact.
Through a tunnel of blossom froth we emerge to views of blue sky and floating, soaring buzzards above smooth sloping Sussex hills edged below with hedgerows of cream lace stitching the patchwork fields below. All at once our ears detect that classic downland poetry of larks ascending, upwards out of view, way up into uninterrupted blue to drop cascading notes of song, to fall and float and return to rest amongst the daisy may-weed meadow welcome. And the sun still travels across the sky and warms the earth and April will dawn another day.
The Studio has been a daily sanctuary this past week or so, tucked away in its solitude with pens and pencils just a Songthrush opera drifting through the window. With the end of the day comes gentle light, lengthening evening time as March stretches towards April and we stretch our muscles as the lowering sun calls us westwards. Westwards along the lane passed the allotments gardens, small patches of determined cultivation eked out between field and lane and woods, long strips of cultivation dating back more than 100 years, marked out on old maps as a long row of pencil lengths stretching half a mile or so from beyond the original railway workers cottages, a small slice of history marking the determined slog of generations of gardeners, caretakers of the soil. Looking through, across the hedge, beside the shed, the earth is tilled, seeds take root so families can be wholesome fed. This atmosphere of normality gives us seeds of hope, helps us forget the empty pavements and near deserted streets, the hyphenated queue outside each shop from which you return in a state of strange delight at the purchase of some previously unwanted prize, something normally overlooked, left unloved upon the shelf, passed by. As the sun dips lower and the last of the allotment plots become quiet and still there is time to stand and stare across the golden reflective mirrored pond, time to savour a moment of pure joy at the unexpected, the last of the fractured sunlight illuminating a flash of orange, a glimpse of blue, as the speeding dart of a kingfisher across our vision quickly flew. Brave little solitary bird, no worries over social distancing for him.
Whilst sitting eating my breakfast toast I found myself wondering in this strange time of stress and loneliness just how many folk might notice aspects of their environment usually outside their ‘radar’. How many folk will stand outside their door, step out onto their balcony, their garden, or walk a few yards up the deserted country lane and notice nature. Those previously unnoticed sights and sounds, and wonder just what is that bird singing that is usually hidden by traffic noise, what is that flowering tree that they have only glimpsed from the daily traffic jam or that pretty ‘weed’ growing in the gutter? How many people will go back indoors and be tempted to look it up, to learn its name? How many people will be encouraged to log onto that famous search engine and type in ‘yellow daisy like weed’ and find that it is called Ragwort, that Oxford Ragwort was a plant that ‘escaped’ on wind-blown seeds from the biology department of Oxford University many years ago, or that it is one of the few food plants of the yellow and black stripped caterpillar of the Cinnabar moth? Who will reach for that long forgotten book and read about birdsong or trees and find an completely new interest so that when all this ‘lockdown’ crisis has eased and the daily commute, the hustle and bustle returns, will be able to say ‘I have found something new in my life, that bird is a blackcap and that tree is a horse chestnut, let us go for a walk there might be cinnabar moths to be found’.
Here in Sussex it has been one of those typical grey mid-winter days when it is not really misty nor even terribly gloomy but just quietly still and pale – the pale grey of a Collard Dove’s wing, neither grey nor fawn just a shade somewhere in between. Against this the trees look etched in with an artists fine nib pen, the only sun to catch on them being a glimmer of lemonade light at around midday, coming to reflect briefly in the water filled runnels and puddles between the clods of mud along the byway. As the midday glimmer faded back to collard dove I took on a sudden urge to be outside and gathered hat and wellingtons, pulling on a warm tweed and took the shortcut through the John Deer yard dodging tractors and trailers as I went. Ducking left then right at the old depot cottages and out onto the farm track I stopped, breathed, looked up and listened and had a strange memory of being at London Zoo in the 60’s and seeing the Snowdon Aviary, why, I have no idea, I was small and cannot remember going in but remember my father being interested as he loved all things architectural. I guess it was something to do with the sound of so many birds, the tree tops today were full of whistling starlings and twittering finches creating that aviary atmosphere. It is surprising the enormous selection of notes that come from a flock of starlings, the finches turned out to be the most ‘charming’ goldies and the larger more robust ones became greenfinches when the binoculars focused. In the thick ivy pink breasted wood pigeons dangled, hanging flapping for balance as they picked off the berries then, in their usual silly startled way, fell from the branches flapping away with sharp wing claps at my approach. New pond was a glass mirror of inverted trees, the only disturbance being a bright, sharp winged black headed gull noisily performing acrobatics and steep dives towards the mirror, pulling up abruptly moments before the mirror cracked. I scanned the low branches along the bankside for tell-tale signs of azure blue that would herald the visit of a kingfisher, but no, I could not find him, he wasn’t here today, or maybe the light was just not bright enough to bounce from his iridescent feathers. The black head was joined by another and they preceded to scream at each other as they danced over their own reflections, suddenly, as if woken by this cacophony, a songthrush launched forth with a set of loud repeated phrases, leafing through the pages of his songbook too fast only to settle into his favourite tune and continue with less haste. With this still echoing up the lane I passed hazel catkins which were definitely longer and yellower this week and elder buds that has burst whilst I had not been paying close attention. Around my boots the tiny, shiny green hearts of celandine leaves and parsley frills were pushing through the loam, I checked under the beech hedge where sometimes you can find earthstar fungi but there was only thick, rich leave litter turned over by the blackbirds tangerine bill. The northern side of the rough oak bark was mint green with lichen and a row of turkey tail fungi marched up a make-shift gatepost at the allotment entrance. Taking another left turn, dozens of black faced sheep gazed at me curiously, I stared back then noticed that the dark winter bare tree skeletons behind them where host to chattering jackdaws bouncing around in the branches in that continual half argumentative half playful way that they have. A single jack peeled off from the group as the wide wingspan of a red kite rose above the trees to flap lazily across the sky space, seemingly unaware or uncaring of the muttering, quarrelsome bird taking ill-aimed stabs at his forked tail. I watched as l the jack gave chase for a few more wingbeats before it retreated, downcast and disappointed leaving the kite to soar unhindered over the old dairy rooftops towards my home, only a well clogged muddy field of cattle stopped me from following and completing my walk in a circular route. Turning about I back tracked towards the allotments where my attention was caught by a variety of bird alarm calls filling a far tree line, I stood tight against a gatepost and waited for the cause of the unrest to materialise through the undergrowth but the disturbance settled and I found myself surrounded by a delightful gang of twittering pink budgies – long tail tits of course! They bounced and dangled merrily as if set free from the restrictions of a festive Christmas tree, through the branches and twigs around me, I waited and watched as they moved on in a straggling ‘wait for me’ kind of parade leaving behind them just a tinkling echo of themselves and a tiny single bright eyed firecrest who seemed to have been tagging along for the ride, just for fun. The collard dove had begun to transform into blue grey of a Merlin.
There is a hill, a tall, tall hill, tallest among his downland friends,
with a circular stand of beech rising up upon his very top ,
which they call Chanctonbury Ring, but to us he will always be
most affectionately known as ‘Chankie’, good old ‘Chankie’!.
Most folk find it is guaranteed that after just one trip,
this magical place will surely win a special corner in your heart.
If you travel the road from where we live, amidst
of the South Downs Park, along towards the Brighton coast,
dear ‘Chankie’is a well known sight, you can see him for several miles,
from Midhurst and Petworth and almost as far as Shoreham town.
I have seen him in the summer time against a bright blue sky
with green, green meadows full of sheep and lambs below,
I have seen him in autumn with swirls of mist and clouds
so low, they alternately hide the stand of beech or shroud the hill,
leaving rusty trees to hover above an island of mist, with
oyster coloured skies behind and brown ploughed earth below.
I have seen him in winter when the beech are bare of leaf, black lace,
Silhouettes, upon the hilltop slopes white with virgin snow,
and the sky a menacing purple cloak gathered around his shoulders.
And I have seen him in the May spring time when the beech ,
Crowded upon his very top, are touched with citrus green,
the sky like bleached blue cotton and the hedgerows, they are
dusted softly with the pink and white of hawthorn blossom.
I have seen him in the evening against a sky of flaming orange,
A huge red sphere floating off towards the western reaches all
streaked with gilt and gold and purple, ready to take it’s rest.
I have seen him against the indigo night hung about with twinkling,
Silver diamonds scattered on the wind and above them all,
a crescent moon, through wisps of cloud valiantly shining.
I have seen him in the burning summer mid-day sun,
the sky a cerulean hue filled with Buzzards soaring high.
And I have seen him in the early morn standing proudly tall,
Reaching up to touch a heaven spread with peachy coloured
painted silk, his beech fingers gently touched with silver beaded threads.
He proudly stands, this tall, tall beech topped hill
amongst the Southern Downs, to reach 780 feet above the sea,
and when you stand upon his top you can see for many miles around,
across the weald, across the Downs and far across the Channel sea.
Folk come up here from Worthing town and places there about,
They come and climb to see the view and play beneath the beech,
They come up here to stand and stare, breathe in the clean fresh air.
They come with families, Aunties, Grannies and children,
they come with picnics, with dogs and horses for riding, or just
to hold each others hands and watch the world go by below.
They come up here to make a wish, to exchange their private vows,
They come with good exercise intentions or just to have a snooze,
And some will come to find some time they need to call their own,
time to be quiet and quite alone away from the busy zone.
There is a hill, a tall, tall hill, topped with a ring of beech like a royal crown,
Which they call Chanctonbury Ring, but to us he will always be
Most affectionately known as ‘Chankie’ dear old ‘Chankie’!
and when you stand upon the heights of this dear familiar friend,
and you take time out to soak up the sights and sounds of his high world,
you may listen hard with all your might, re-tune you ears and focus your sight,
but the only thing to disturb the quiet, grass scented air, so still,
will be the silently beating breath of the Kestrel’s feathered wing
or the distant peeling of a holy bell, a honey bee or a cricket that zings, or maybe,
just maybe, someone who quietly snores the peaceful afternoon away.
Starlings – that
familiar sight in our childhood gardens, always making one smile, you just have
to love them for all their daring, fearless argumentative ways. They are cheeky, gregarious, raucous and
noisy but they stick together, look out for one another. You will rarely see one alone unless he is
sitting atop a chimney in full whistling, chirping display, head up, throat feathered
and wings held out catching the sunlight in a myriad of purples, greens, blacks
and blues. Together they march across
your lawn like a troop of cockney pearly kings and queens dressed in their best
dark suits studded with pearl buttons ready for a carnival parade. In winter they gather in huge flocks, a
murmuration of black silhouetted birds
gathering together to twirl and separate and gather again flocking in their
thousands, they stay close, each tagging the other, watching his neighbours
back, keeping close, swirling in close formation cutting and reforming, creating
clouds and shapes against the evening sky, where one goes the next one goes,
closed ranks of comrades each marking the other, forever on the lookout for
danger or predators, safety in numbers, before funnelling down to an unseen roost. To see this is to see one of nature’s most
spectacular creations, you catch your breath, you hold your breath, you sigh. Whilst watching a film of such a murmeration,
remembering an evening standing near a railway line on the edge of a town where
we did just this, it occurred to me once again just how healing nature can be.
It seems that as you watch your thoughts can fly with these birds, swirling and
dipping, causing you to catch your breath, as if the very birds are collecting
your thoughts, sifting out the negatives and swirling them away, sucking them
away until they are tiny black dots that join together before being funnelled
down to disappear into the darkness until you realise they have gone, slipped
away and you have been holding your breath and you gasp and sigh and cannot
help but feel uplifted, almost rejuvenated and definitely privileged at having
shared the moment as one of nature’s spectacles unfold.
This is something that I wrote one spring day as the days
were lengthening in preparation for the long summer days and short summer
nights. It is rather random and maybe a bit strange but bear with me and you
may just see what I mean.
Sunrise is a peculiar thing, at least that’s how it seems
living amongst hill, it seems to happen in the opposite direction to that which
your brain thinks it should. Strange
statement yes, but sitting in bed at dawn with an early tea I can view trees
from my window, looking west with the sun behind me, a lovely view you may
think and yes it is, as the sunlight reveals hidden nature, the oaks now
clothed in small sculptured leaves and tiny tasselled flowers, the fat bursting
buds of the ash and drooping splayed hands of sycamore. The thick dark green ivy becoming shining and
reflective whilst grey perched shapes are being transformed into plump pink
breasted pigeons and a single round beige feathered ball becomes a sandy and
bronze coloured very rotund madam pheasant roosting upon a high branch, although
as she warms we see that the rotundness is all an illusion and with feathers
flattened and tidied she becomes just another rather skinny bird! So to the point of the reverse image, one
would assume that as the sun rose it would flood light upwards across the land
and up into the sky and at dusk as it sank again everything would darken from
the sky downwards leaving the land last to glow. Whilst this is certainly so for the sky, on
careful thought it would seem that this would only be so if the land was
completely flat, or at least flatter than Sussex, indeed whilst staying on the
Somerset levels recently the sunrise did in fact begin at meadow level.
However, as we, here amongst the Sussex Downs, are surrounded by hills, and I
sit and contemplate the beginning and end of the day with hills to the east of
me and hills to the west, everything appears to happen in a reverse image. As the sun gently rises above the hills in
the east it is the tops of the grand oaks and ashes that it touches first, like
Midas, turning all to gold. Gold that
slowly but surely creeps downwards as the sun rises higher until the whole
trees with the brambles below and the meadows beyond and eventually the hills
in the west are awash with light and become coloured once more after the
shadows of night. Then after a glorious day when we have soaked
up all the sights and sounds and smells that nature can give us and we retire
to contemplate our day, dusk begins to fall upwards. The meadows and the brambles gilded with
golden light which as the sun sinks works its way upwards, up the trunks of the
oaks and ash, up the ivy, up, up to the branches and the topmost crown of the
trees leaving all below in evening shadow and the sky above the sun in a blasé
of glory. Is this a case of ‘what goes
up must come down or what goes down must come up’ or is it just and illusion
and confusion of my strange and twisted brain?!
It does indeed seem a strange thing to contemplate but it has for many a
while been a conundrum I have strived to solve whilst sitting drinking my
morning tea, and contemplating nature does give such joy in its own, sometimes
confusing, way. A waste of time some
might say, just sitting gazing,
thinking, but as a wise owl of a friend once pointed out to me, there is a
quote, by whom I do not know, which in wise words says – ‘time you enjoy
wasting in not time wasted at all’. Was
I some kind of psychotherapist in a former life or do I need one, am I just
This blog has been sitting on the ‘back burner’ for quite a while, it is the introduction to something special to me, something I have been compiling for a long time, it has a way to go yet, editing, re-writing and tweaking here and there but it is coming along nicely, so here goes ………
The Nature of Me – Recently the news has been full of important Mental Health issues, people, famous and unknown opening up their hearts to tell their stories of anxiety, depression and much, much more, being tremendously brave in opening up not just to themselves but to the world about what has troubled them in the hope of helping others. Seeing, hearing and reading about this makes one feel very humble and thankful that in comparison some of us have had an relatively easy ride, but if we are really honest with ourselves many of us have had some small issue in our lives that may have been battled through or ‘brushed under the carpet’, or if not experienced first hand have had connections with mental health stress through friends or family members. Life cannot be ‘stream-lined’ and ordered, it takes its own twists and turns and we have to go with the flow or battle against the tide. I have been lucky generally, having a comfortable, secure childhood, holidays in Devon or Exmoor, steady employment when working, a long lasting, loving marriage and a couple of wonderful children, but none of these things can ever be without some amount of anxiety, we have struggled through un-economic times with high mortgage debts and teenage children’s own stress and anxiety but we count ourselves as lucky. As a terribly shy child I was happy in my own company, I immersed myself in nature, toy farms and ‘What to Look For in nature’ Ladybird books, nature was my solace, my escape from the world, it was my world, an interest that I kept to myself, soaking up information like a sponge and never sharing with school friends for fear that it was ‘not their thing’, even as an adult this passion was rarely shared until I had children to ‘teach’. I always had a wish to draw and paint nature, write about it, research it, but as a child of the 60’s and 70’s we had no internet, no computers, only pen and paper and the village library. When our children were nearing senior school age a set of circumstances and a house move prompted me to begin writing things down, accounts of outings, holidays, activities, in the form of letters and diaries, and to paint the countryside around us. My Grandmother May Violet was a very quiet lady, brought up by her Victorian grandparents, my Cousin’s husband, who was a journalist and could get a good story out of anyone, would sit with her and encouraging her to talk about her childhood, I remember him saying that she should write it all down or it would be lost, sadly they both passed away before this was done. Maybe this is a lesson to us all? Having made the house move I immediately felt at home in our new surroundings and set about investigating my home patch, not just discovering the nature and the landscape but my own family ancestral links with the area, which truly did turn out to be ‘home’. Being creative can bring its own anxieties, whether a writer, painter, designer or other artistic producer we always seem to hide in our shell, always unsure of peoples opinion, afraid friends will say ‘how lovely’ so as not to offend. This was me, as an untrained artist I paint how and what I feel, my own vision, always scared of revealing my work to the public. However, with the help and encouragement of loved ones I gathered my courage and joined a couple of local art groups having some success. The writing I kept quiet until I read Chris Packham’s ‘Fingers in the Sparkle Jar’ and was moved by his honesty, then a couple of years ago I suffered with an eye problem and came close to losing the sight in one eye, which as an artist was doubly terrifying. Spending endless hours with nothing to do but think and listen to the radio and the birds outside a plan began to form, so now I too have opened my heart with words and paintings, it is not a huge monumental story, it is no big deal, it is not full of drama and life changing experiences but it means a great deal to me, it explores my childhood memories, my secrets, my history, ‘the nature of me’ and how these things may have influenced me and moulded me into who I am. It tells of how I began beneath the Sussex South Downs, moved away, explored my nature and returned full circle coming home to the nature and the land of my fathers’. Having put this all down on paper the next move is having the courage to share it, so publishing this blog is that first tentative step.
“Each careful step along the byway, much more much more than this…………”
This weekend, Easter Weekend, has been warmer than usual, mutterings about Global Warming fill the headlines, I flicked back through my notes and found something from last July :-
We walked the hot tarmac of the lane, across the burning bright patches to tree shade, heat and shade, white and black, from tree to tree, like walking the edges of a chess boards. The lane-side bracken is curled, crisp and dry, the crops short, stunted, few swallows fly high in search of insects, a single buzzard circles lazily on a hot thermal and horses and cows seek shade, bothered by flies. The late afternoon sky is pale blue, washed out bleached denim, parched like the ground, devoid of water. The simmering silence is cut by a sound that grows louder, closer, a single plain against the brightness cuts across the denim – SPITFIRE! – we look up, shade our eyes, follow its course, wave. The straight determined flight is punctuated, the spitfire ‘rolls’ – is it just for us? a ‘wave’ in return? or just the high spirits of a pilot alone in the wide space of the sky, joyful in his task? Silence returns, the afternoon holds its breath and we return, retreat home, into the marginal coolness of the house, to drink tea and sit out the remains of the stifling day as it simmers towards evening, doors and windows wide open. The television breaks the silence, flicking through channels, Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, Mrs Hudson, interrupted by advertisements for for things no one really wants to buy. Buses still rumble past the front door, diesel hangs above the hot tarmac, the air shimmers like steam. From the back, through the open door, the songs of goldfinch spill into the kitchen, hanging in tinkling trills upon the air, the sun-light deepens, sinking, gilding the summer bronze of the copper beech with perfectly polished gold, and burnishing the petals of rose ‘Queen Elizabeth’ to blush a deeper hue. Then breeze comes, a breeze, relief, coolness.