The Hills of Doggerland - a photo essay

I've been working in a piece of writing for a competition - hence the lack of words here.  I can't publish the competition  work until after the end of the judging - so wish me luck and enjoy these pictures of my trip to the Farne Islands - The Hills of Doggerland.

Inner Farne
Gulls over a fishing boat
Transport to the Island
Lesser Black Backed Gull
On Inner Farne (or On Stewart M)
Arctic Tern
Bridled Tern
The journey home
The journey home II
This whole set of picture will look much better viewed in slide show mode - so click on one image to be able to see them all in a larger format.

Normal (wordy) service will resume soon.  SM

The Hills of Doggerland

More things happen at edges than at the centre.  Dusk or dawn are better times to uncover secrets than the harsh hours of midday.  Spring and autumn bring out the hidden and the slow in ways that summer and winter do not.  The movement from problem to solution, that mental cliff edge of creation, is so much more exciting than the routine of production. 

We gravitate towards the coast with its tide pools and estuaries, with its edges both temporal and spatial.   Tides and times.  Boundaries and borders.  And for me back in the UK, there is a strong pull towards the here and the past – that most intractable boundary of all.

We headed north towards Northumbria, close to a political line that would soon be given the chance (rejected) to become thicker on the map and in doing so create a new edge of sorts. Not really looking for edges as such, but knowing full well that we would find them.  

Up the A1, the old Great North Road, the older Ermine Street, past places I used to live and work, past places I remember.  Past York, where I went from trainee to neophyte teacher; past Newcastle and Gateshead, where I planted trees, kept an eye on long suffering badgers and learnt that you can move on from endings that felt final.  Rows of Tyneside flats, that step up the bank – not the hill – in twinned front door pairs.  Napier Road, just around from the post office, seems so long ago.  A flash of a pond, Shibdon, where I counted ducks in winter, butterflies in summer and walked in slow moving circles, speaking to everybody I saw.  A better warden of the nature around me than of the forest between my ears.  It takes less than 10 minutes to drive through a world that was all I had for almost four years. These days, if I speak over that edge, into the memories of that time, to see if anybody is still there, only one voice comes back to disturb my own echo.

I keep driving and Newcastle recedes.  My mind races backwards, and I recall the shock of the unfamiliar when I came to live here.  I could not even pronounce the name of the city correctly – with my syllables too balanced.  Locally it’s the “castle” that takes the precedence, with the “new” sounding as if it’s pronounced on an in breath.  Beyond the city, away from Quayside and the seven bridges, the accent softens, but remains distinct.  I could have lived the rest of my life there and my speech would have marked me as being other than local, although this is probably true of most places!

Soon the dense urban view gives way to more open green.   Once more into borders and edges; England falls away and the presence of Scotland grows.  This is an open land, with long views to distant hills, befitting one that that has been reived and fought over for years. A land thick with history.  Newcastle may still mean mines and muck in the mind’s eye of many, but Northumbria beyond it is the wild version of the green and pleasant land conjured in contrast to the dark mills of industry.  This was a core of a Kingdom long before England was formed as a union of convenience.  Stretching up to Edinburgh and down past York this was a northern Kingdom, home to a long line of kings.  It was part of the Viking Danelaw that looked more to Scandinavia than to the south.   It is a part of the world that may look with some jealousy at the 18th of September chance being offered the other northern kingdom.

The barn is a modern conversion, but its small windows still pay due regard to the old chill of winter, when cold winds push the waves hard onto the shore and huddle the ducks and geese into sheltered bays and behind rocky headlands.  In February and the dark days of March, even the Eider look cold.  From the small balcony you can see Bambrugh Castle a little way up the coast, its walls catching the late afternoon light, and the Farne Islands, rough, irregular a little way off the coast.  Islands, castles and open views in all directions.  It’s a landscape that lends itself to long contemplation and myth making, internal and external.

My brother and parts of his family are already settled into the barn when we arrive.  As ever there is that strange period when reunited families need to find out what has changed and what has stayed the same.  Kids are the greatest markers of change; growth, achievement, failure. Some moving through, year-wise, the years of schooling, others approaching the end of high academic achievement and the gaining of a formal title.  But above and beyond that, there is that strange period of time that comes of finding out how other families do the common day to day tasks, and which one of the old family, the brother family, still do things like they were done in the past.  And it turns out that neither of us do things the way they were done in our parents’ house. This is not a small mercy. 

Like so many other harbours, Seahouses is wrapped in a thick protective wall, with rough and sea chopped water on the outside and calm, slightly oil slicked water, on the inside.  Gulls pass from one side to the other – airborne symbols of the turn of the ocean, of its power and its ability to bring food to the mouths of the hungry.  Gulls, all silver and grey, overlooked by most, encumbered with the unnecessary and clumsy ‘sea’ by all but the most pedantic. 

Inside the harbour wall female Eider, chunky sea ducks beloved of cold climate dwellers, shelter their half grown chicks.  From above they are the colour of old grass and fallen plants, brown and cryptic.  That must be the direction from which danger comes, gulls, skuas and birds of prey that would take the eider chicks to feed their own offsprings’ hungry mouths. But on the sea they are plain to see.  The males, presumably with no domestic duties to attend to, are a conspicuous black and white.  Unfortunately most of the males seem to be being conspicuous elsewhere and only one comes within camera range.   Gulls, ever-present in their shades of white and grey, follow a boat as it enters the harbour.   Black-headed, Herring and Lesser Black-Backed, all burdened by the general public by the prefix ‘sea’ to gull and the lack of anything else.  They all become seagulls and for many, maybe most, that’s the end of it.  And for those of us who think of ourselves as birders, it’s a marker of ‘the others’ who don’t take it seriously enough, and as such should not be taken seriously either.

But adding sea to gull may be a greater or more accurate way to capture the sprit of these birds; for it adds to their name the sense of adventure and place that comes with life on the sea.  These are not birds that have mastered the effortless flight of swallows or hawks; they fly in a workman-like fashion, making flight look as hard as it almost certainly is.  And yet they remain the masters of their domain.  Neither storm nor swell can keep them from the coast, and at all times they look better flying in ragged ranks behind fishing boats than they do perched on car park roof tops or gathered around high street chip shops. They are birds of the sea, and the sea would be diminished without them.  “For those in peril on the sea” would never have been written by or about gulls. 

We step aboard a broad hipped boat and head out to sea/see.  Seahouses is the stepping off point for trips to the Farne Islands, a rocky extension of igneous dolerite, looping out into the shallow North Sea before heading back to form the castle studded headlands of Northumbria. But the people on the boat are almost certainly not on board to look at the geology, they are there to look at the birds that live on the cliffs it forms. The number of islands depends on the state of the tide, and the number of birds on the state of the season. In winter, the cliffs are all but abandoned, with the birds outnumbered by the seals.  But in the spring and early summer – in the time I am visiting – the cliffs are thronged with thousands of breeding seabirds.  Under the watchful cannons of Bamburgh Castle many of the boat passengers shelter theirs, although with one less N, under waterproof coats. 

The Farne Islands are steep and rocky today, but in the past that would not have been the case.  Today they rise out of the sea because they are harder and more resistant to erosion than the rocks that lie beneath the cold of the North Sea around them.  In the past, when sea levels were lower, these same rocks would have risen as hills from a grassy plain for exactly the same reason.  Within the stretch of human occupancy, if not memory, the North Sea was an open grassy plain, stretching from what is now the British Isles to the rest of Europe.  It was an open plain rich with animals so large that they defy the modern vision of Britain with its depleted fauna.  And it was a plain over which bands of hunters sought out these animals with little more than barbed antler spears and teamwork.

Today the Farnes are islands in a cold and cloudy sea. In the past they were the highlands of the plains, they were the Hills of Doggerland. A lost kingdom, a real Atlantis that sank beneath the waves of the rising seas, only to remain in the strangely rhythmic, poetic, listings of the shipping forecast: Forth, Tyne, Dogger. Northeast 5 or 6.  Rain then squally showers. Moderate, poor in showers.

Just after mid-night at the beginning or the end of the day, this litany of prediction goes out to all those on the sea; and the peril of their journey is determined by its contents and their reactions. 

Our boat circles the outer islands, past a lighthouse long staffed by keepers and their families, the most famous of whom was Grace Darling – a local hero – who, in the company of her father, plucked five survivors from the wreck of the Forfarshire.  Today the lighthouse is automated, staffed only by computers, which even in their most cooperative state are unlikely to row a coble out to aid the distressed and lost.  On the largest inner island there is the ruin of a church, abandoned by the pious to the elements, only to be reborn as a temporary home for the wardens that guard the birds that call the islands home as well.

I can’t help but think of the past that sits on the surface of the rocks, and the past that lies hidden below the water.  When these rocks were hills rather than uplands, did people gather on the tall crags to watch and wait?  Were they used as lookouts, hunting towers, to scan the horizon for herds of animals suitable for the hunt?  Did people gather to scan the horizon, a waiting group of the old, the young, the lame, hoping for the safe return of family members?  Fire by night, smoke by day; the embryo of future stories; a watchtower and guide post sitting on the edge of uncertainty.  And is there a link between these hopeful watchers, the pious monks and today’s green and brown clad conservationist?  All seem to want to see into a better future, and all seem to be largely powerless to bring about the things they wish for.  Of the three, only the direct action of the last group is rooted in the nature of the real world; the actions of the others only lived in the world of hopes and dreams. 

Even before we step ashore it’s clear that the Farnes are a special kind of place.  The number of birds, in the air and on the cliffs and water, hint at a richness that has been lost from the world.  The steep cliffs and waters support the kind of abundance that was once common. The kind of abundance that was reported, and disbelieved by many, by those who left the already damaged forests and fields of Europe in search of new lands.  A kind of abundance that we have forgotten is possible; the kind of abundance that we should seek to rebuild for the sake of the places themselves, for the sake of the things that live there and for the sake of the people who will come to see them.

The presence of the boat spreads little waves of panic through the birds on the water – the cliff dwellers remain still and steadfast, confident in the security of their cliff edge homes. Puffins, dumpy, pointed football shaped birds, clatter over the surface of the water. A dozen or more meters between fright and flight. Some abandon the air entirely and seek shelter by diving.  Their short wings, which look woefully short for the thinness of the air seem to fare better in the thicker medium of water.  The wing length of this remarkable little bird is a naturally selected compromise between the two states of matter through which this bird flies; liquid and gas.  The bright summer bill, the puffin’s comic face paint, is shed in the winter when the birds are no longer interested in choices of the flesh.  But in the days of early summer the birds are at their finest; rainbow beaks full of sand eels, bright in the sun, with only the faint traces of mud on their feathers, fresh from their nest burrows, that spoil the show.    

We are greeted on the small concrete quayside of Inner Farne by a man in a battered, guano splattered hat; surely there have been few more unlikely keepers of possibility than those who take on the mantle of summer-time hermit for the sake of the birds, for the sake of the richness of the world and the sake of other peoples’ children.  And from the air around us and the grass below us we are surrounded by the shrieking of birds.  Arctic Terns are vocal – and physical – in the protection of the space they call their own.  Even through the fabric of a much-loved canvas bucket hat, the impact of their sharp beaks gains my attention.  People duck and weave to avoid the sharp-billed protest of the birds as they protect their young.  It gives a wonderful sense of wildness to a place rather robbed of its wilderness by the density of tripods and meter long telephoto lenses. The birds will soon leave the islands, when summer ends, but their relentless attacks show who are the visitors and who are the residents, albeit temporary.  In bare grass scrapes, often by the path side, and sometimes protected by warden-strung ropes, tiny fluffy chicks ignore the human traffic and beg for food from their parents.  Fish after fish, tiny morsels of silver protein, are slowly being converted into an airborne wonder – a sea swallow as they were once called.  A remarkable transubstantiation of the flesh, a knowable mystery that binds us all to a common biology; fish, birds, men.  It’s a strange union to consider, with a bird perched on your head and the call of thousands of others ringing in your ears.  Strange and wonderful. 

Out past the landing quay the island opens up into scruffy looking vegetation, speckled with birdlime and undermined by puffin tunnels and full of birds.  Most of the photographers and keen birders don’t come up into this slightly battered area because down by the quay is a rarity.  It’s a bridled Tern, a misplaced migrant, possibly from the Caribbean, and it’s rarely seen in the UK.  It’s a great bird, but it’s a freak.  It’s a footnote on the Farne Islands breeding season of 2014, and little more.  The real wonder of the place is in the living memory of abundance that you can feel as you walk from place to place.

Flocks of Puffins and Guillemots.  Artic and Common Terns in deafening numbers.  Kittiwakes with cliff face nest and puffy young, born from pointed edge-safe eggs. A smaller number of Razorbills. A single Fulmar sitting alone.  Even the Bridled Tern.  The island is alive with birds, and for a while all those on the island are more alive as well.

The ones that got away

London slips away behind us as we head north and east.  Back out through suburbs served and invented by the tube. 

Slow traffic.  Red light disappointment.  Green light anticipation.

Creeping past houses with small gardens and smart cars.  Paused before shops with ghost signs, showing generations of economic change; markers of waves of migration that has made this place what it is today.  

How easy would it be to map the history of London by looking at the names of shop owners and the brands of the products they sell? Post war migration, postcolonial economics, suburban decay and gentrification told through shop fronts and label fonts.  

We move out past the ring fence of the M25:  a boundary in both directions.  How many of those inside look beyond the pale to greener lands – an escape to the country – and how many outside look inwards towards activity, jobs and mythically lined streets.  Sitting in stationary traffic brings far more questions than answers.

The spaces between the houses start to grow.  Fields, long unploughed, ringed with falling wire fences, back onto new housing estates and dormitory houses.  Tall grass grows beside the fence posts and the wires sprout occasional plastic bags.  This hinterland – neither rural nor urban – is strange to travel through; it looks unloved, yet full of possibility.  Edgelands.  Unofficial Countryside. Places that fail the categorisation of the worlds they border yet are home and hearth to many both wild and tamed.  Few who live on either side of these places pause within it.  It’s a zone of transmission and transience.  It’s a zone often as unobserved as it is unloved.  Horses stand with their backs to the wind.  Magpies, more blue than black, and midnight crows find a living here from the wastes of others.  Pairs of mothers pass an hour pushing their children in buggies.  We are passing through, and they seem to be going elsewhere as well.  It’s a land of change and transit.

We take the road to Norwich. The fields grow greener.  Small woodlands, once in the distance, now push at the roadside.  We pass the county boundary; Norfolk.  I know less of this place than even London, having never been here before. 

The England I knew was west and north, hills and mountains of sorts, the domain of oak, damp with winds and rain from the Atlantic.  This east is different.  Flat. Fertile. Fenland. Fast formed and flood wracked by season. A landscape more made by man than many.  A landscape that turns around the far and obvious spires and towers of churches.  And a landscape, distorted by six months of growing excitement, which is home to fish of many species. 

Walnut Tree Cottage looked wonderful on the web, but an address of “Main Road” has me worried.  The naming tree sits to one side of the crunchy gravel drive and is paired with a huge mulberry tree behind the house.  The berries are ready to fall, the nuts await autumn. And it’s almost silent. Sparrow cheeps, swallow twitters and the rattle of stones scattered by a pup of a dog called Tudds don’t count.  After about ten minutes it occurs to me you could probably play family cricket out on the Main Road and be in little danger.  I assume that this was a Main Road in the days when horsepower ate oats and spent the night, curry combed and washed, in stable outbuildings.  But today it seems just an honorary title. 

We move from modern car to a 17th century house, with welcoming hosts, and most welcome tea.  The rooms are historically small, cool in summer, snug against the eastern wind of winter; wooden stair steps that speak now and then, flags solid and foot polished on the floor, low ceilings and double filled bookcases with a section of maps and walking guides.  This could have been the house I was born in, except this one had functional heating, hot water and plumbing that worked.  And if anything else was needed to show this was a here and now very different from that then and there, a splendid breakfast appeared everyday, spread over a table covered with cloth and furnished with fruit, toast and jam.  Our hosts seemed visibly disappointed that we never took up the offer of a cooked breakfast to line the stomach – and the arteries - against the risks of the coming day.   I concede that may have been a mistake, but my doctor would have approved.

In the warm dull hours of late afternoon we head north.  Here, with almost mapmaker precision, the coast runs due east/west.  Facing out into the North Sea, this is an area of fierce winter storms and winds made sharp by the shallow, cold water.  And surprisingly along this coastal fringe lie a number of holiday towns.  Or at least towns that in years gone by would have aspired to that title.  Towns that flourished before people fled their pebble beaches and summer rain for the Spanish Costas.  Towns emptied by package deals from Luton airport and Thomas Cook. Towns with long piers and promenades, both of which allowed you to walk to nowhere in particular, and having got there, turn around and walk back.  

Cromer seems to be a town split in two:  away from the sea the streets are straight and wide, meeting at right angles, giving views of nothing much more than the other side of the street.  The houses themselves look solid and heavy, adapted to the cold winter winds, but over built for a warm summer afternoon.  They look like prime candidates for bed and breakfasts, hanging on against economic downturns and the tides of fashion.  But there are few signs in the windows and none in the four square garden blocks; the streets look old and tired.  There are no people to be seen. The streets look closed.

Down towards the sea the character changes; streets meet at odd angles and pubs and cafes occupy corner blocks.  There are more, but not many, people.  They look in shop windows and wonder out loud about the choice of haddock or cod.  Later experience suggests that the best choice would have been neither.  The streets, clean, bright and oddly empty, center on the flint built church, where rounds are cobbled into straight lines and sharp corners.  The graveyard is wild with flowers, bright and real in a way that the town seems not to be.  Yellows and reds against the grey stones.  Life in a place of death.  A strange source of possibility for a town down on its luck, swimming against the tide.

The beach itself is the best part – flint cobbles and crabbing boats, pulled up against the wall by rusty old tractors.  This is old but alive, fading but active.  We pile stones one upon another, tower building in the Goldsworthy style.   Large to small, the uneven stacked back to back to form a kind of stability.  One flint seems to have a worked edge.  Is this just a fluke caused by the random collision of sea stones – or was it worked by an old, old hand when the cliffs were hills overlooking grasslands and the sea was distant?  

If the stone was a tool, and I think it was, it seems strange to hold in my hand a blade from the time when all things started.  An artifact from a culture that dealt with change in ways that are not open to us.  In a town that might be at the end of its time, I collect a sharp stone that has been tumbled and turned, edged and held from the distant past. 

My stone tower topples.  The wind chills as the sun sinks.  It’s time to leave.

Cromer faces great challenges, but somewhere between the growth of its flowers and the roll of its stone it needs to find a way forward. 

Later in the week we return to this stretch of coast – and forewarned we decide to avoid the seaside towns, and head for wilder coasts.  At Holcombe a wide expanse of sand sits between pine trees and the sea.  In the trees shredded cones suggest a healthy population of squirrels, and on the beach footprints are over written by hoof marks; the flat sand an inviting walk or an exciting canter.  The kids choose the sea, and I choose a more inland path.  We synchronize watches, agree a time and a place to meet and go our separate ways.

My footpath wanders along the boundary of the pines and open fields.  Dark places to my right and open bright fields to my left.  Butterflies seem to favor the left, where more flowers bloom and the sunlight warms their wings.  On my return journey this pattern will be reversed, but the outward leg suits my state of mind, and makes me smile. The pines are not dark enough to be Mirky, but they are uninviting.  A path through brambles – for once not a weed in need of control – allows me to look over the fields and hedges to my left.

A large brown bird drifts into view from behind one of the hedges. Lazy unconcerned flaps and long glides.  Wings held in a shallow vee above its back, a hunter’s dihedral; a marsh harrier.  Soon a darker bird, with the same flight and grace, joins it.  The first bird pairs and quarters with the second and even I can hear the startled calls of the small birds they pass over. The dark bird slides from view and its pale companion keeps hunting.  Flap and glide.  Flap and glide. Slight changes to the angles of the birds wings sends it twisting down towards some unseen prey.  Gone.

Not so long ago this would have been a remarkable sight, but this is a bird that is fighting back against the tides of landscape change.  We have bought cheap reliable food at the price of small and ragged places, unkempt corners and the homes of March Harriers.  Riches and security come at a high price, but have uniform, unblemished apples and out of season fruit been bought at too great a cost?   Full stomachs (for many, but never all) sit below minds robbed of the possibility of chance encounters, wild encounters.  Hunger is not ennobling, but neither is the loss of wildness and contact.   The harrier reappears from the long grass, an unidentified ball of fur or feathers gripped in its talons.  The rough lands near the sea feed two needs.  Back on the path White Admirals rest in the summer sunlight.  Time rushes past; with the tower bird hide not yet in view, I walk faster.

The steps up to the hide are steep, mossy and a little greasy; the door creaks as it opens.  I’m surprised to find someone else in there.  I’m even more surprised that he seems to be marking exam papers; I recognise the disappointed sigh as he reads another answer that seems to miss the point, or was written by somebody who missed the class.  I say “hello”, but he does not even look up.  He must find marking even harder than I did.

A harrier drifts past in the distance.  Ducks – mallard – pladge in a pool of shallow water in front of the hide.  My companion sighs again.  A few hundred meters away a deeper pond holds more duck, coot and a lone grey heron.  At the back of the pond – at the extreme range for comfortable viewing – are a group of white birds.  I expect them to be egrets, a bird that has only become regular in England in the years since I left in the 1990s.  For me a group of these birds would have been highlight enough, but even at an uncomfortable distance it’s clear that these birds are bit egrets.

Unconsciously helpful, one of the birds moves a little closer and holds its head so the bill becomes a silhouette.  A long bill that bulges at its end to a round disk – the birds are spoonbills.  There are at least eight birds, possibly more around a corner in a hidden part of the pool.  The birds feed in loose groups of twos and threes, sweeping their spoon bills through the water, taking in the thick parts of the summer soup.  I find the silence of my companion difficult, and I ask if he has seen the spoonbills.  I get a single syllable reply; “yes”.   I look back to the spoonbills just in time to see the marsh harrier fly over them.  Neither seems to notice the other.

Here in one flooded field we have recovery and expansion.  Both are caused by human change. The harrier, the beneficiary of conscious change, the spoonbills inadvertent, but well understood, change.  We plant trees in unfarmed corners and turn off the herbicides in the headlands of our wheat, because we can see what happens when we do.  But when politicians look to the skies they seem to see nothing at all.  Just empty space and next week’s polls.  As the seas creep up, and the storm rains flow down, places like Norfolk become the battleground of climate change.  Many acres here and in other low lying places may have to be abandoned soon as the cost of flood and tide defences grows and grows.  The harriers and spoonbills will do well from this – but what will it really mean if we give up this land to the sea?  What will it really mean, when we redraw the maps and the people move on? 
Further down the coast seals – common and grey – haul out on sandbanks.  Never has a creature looked so much like an inflatable pool toy.  They watch us watching them.  Terns and oystercatchers tend to the summer business of parenthood, some chicks still in the nest, some running in the water and some still inside the hard shell of their eggs.  In the creeks and small river mouths boats sit at anchor, clipped to floating buoys.  One of the boats looks like a strange combination of Ark and Garden Shed, as if the upper part of the boat has fallen on to the lower by accident.  

The next day dawns summer bright and clear.  I would not have objected to a few clouds, but the weather was set fair.  Daily temperatures make the front page of the papers and people speak of the long summers from childhood.  It is early, but not painfully so, when I walk out of the front door and flush two wood pigeons from the Walnut tree.  Fat and loud winged, the total mass of this species out-weights any other bird in the UK.  This is the kind of thing I carry in my head.  That most domestic of bird, the house sparrow, gathers in noisy groups on the gutters.  From the trees behind the house, Jackdaws chack to each other. In the distance, I can hear the rough cough of a tractor engine starting. Weekend after weekend started like this for me in the past, up early to go fishing, wondering what, if anything, would happen over the next few hours.

With the expectation of a canvas hat, faded down to colourlessness by the harsh Australia sun, my wardrobe runs to greens and browns.  An annoyingly bright bag is slumped against the wall, but I know I could hide that in the bushes if needs be.  In the past I would have had a flask of coffee with me, bitter and dark.  But something needs to be left behind.  I have been looking forward to this day for almost six months.  This is the day I can go fishing. And it’s the kind of fishing I understand: long rods, fine lines, small hooks and fresh water. 

A car rolls in from the east, with a face I recognise, but have never seen, behind the wheel.  I had spoken to John the day before, as he battled his way through nettles towards a river, hoping for barbel.   As a kid I had read the things he wrote, and wondered what it would be like to catch that many fish; to catch fish that big.  Today, he is going to help me catch tench, a fish that had filled many June mornings in the past. 

The inside of the car is full of gear.  Criss-cross rods and tackle boxes.  Dozens of apparently identical yellow plastic bags.  Buckets of bait, and abandoned paper bags that once held lunch.  It is the kind of scene produced either by an explosion or a month of continuous fishing.  Thankfully, it is due to fishing.  We talk as we drive down country lanes, finding common ground in nature and fish.  It wis weird to meet a stranger and to feel comfortable so fast, a common goal and a shared vocabulary a clear advantage.  From the back of the car comes the familiar ticking of rod tips tapping together in response to bumps in the road.

The flat lands of Norfolk have not always been as peaceful as they are today – not that long ago they were studded with air fields that sent forth planes to protect or damage dependent on design.   And the runways of the airfields were built with gravel dug from ground; the ancient spoor or glaciers and rivers, mixed and poured to bring forth fire and death.  And in the flooded holes this left behind a gentler life now thrives.  The edges have been softened by willow and reed, the shallows are studded with water lilies, classically awaiting a sitting frog.   And there are fish.  Hopefully there are a lot of fish.

In a wonderful example of the process beloved of Intelligent Designers, order arises from the chaos in the back of the car.  Rods are chosen and strung with line, hooks are tied and baited.  How many hundreds of times I have done this?  I take a rod to the water’s edge and cast, and place the rod on the rests.  I tighten the line and wait.  I feel a familiar combination of anticipation and stillness, the first front and centre, the second growing by the minute.  People say that fishing is dull, but these must be those who cannot drive without the radio and have yet to learn the value of stillness.   The line on the rod flickers upwards, brief and small, and my hand hovers over the handle.  Nothing else happens. It was probably a fish colliding with the filament line between reel and hook. This is a time machine.  I could be 15 again, but my hair is shorter and my mind clearer. 

A Kingfisher electric blues across the water while a family of Great Crested Grebes fish in the shallow water to our right.  They are catching no more fish than we are.  On the other side of the water a heron stands motionless, a grey shadow against the green bank.  Terns, wonderfully white against the blue sky, call with sharp, shrill voices and leave the scene with tiny silver fish.  Somewhere a hungry youngster will be pleased.  It’s probably a good thing my kids are not relying on me to provide a fish supper.   

After an hour of near complete stillness we move to another, smaller pond.  I have no idea what makes a lake a lake and a pond a pond, but I think this is a pond.  Under a willow tree, almost a fishing cliché, I fish for tench.  A thick topped, red float sits in the mosaic reflection of the branches.  Patches of tiny bubbles break the surface, the signature move of my intended catch, and anticipation builds again.  Small fish nibble.  The float twitches and dances.  I feel my hand tighten around the handle of the rod.  My feet serve as a rest for the rod.  There remains something special about fishing with a float. The process is pure memory and deliberate simplicity. Eventually the float lifts slightly, slides sideways and disappears.  Classic.  The fish heads for the sanctuary of weeds and I cup my hand over the reel to slow its escape.  Much to my surprise this succeeds.  I feel the fish circle with heavy intent.  I feel the rod spring straight.  The stored energy of the bent rod launches the float back towards me.  Gone.  At such times there is a great need to embrace stillness, and strangely I can.

I have said before that fishing is about more than just catching fish.  And if ever this needs to be true it’s as I wind in the slack.  Little bubbles of slime coat the line where it rolled over the flanks of the fish. Things happen, most are of no real consequence, many make us angry; but often there is little justified link between the cause and the effect. I remember the anger this would have caused in the past, as if it really mattered. A rage would have boiled up and stopped me from seeing anything but the straightened rod and the returning float. I rebait and recast, and once more embrace the stillness.  It seems the natural thing to do.  A large blue dragonfly lands on the tip of the rod and rubs its eyes clean with its legs.  It’s important to be able to see clearly.   I stare at the float, a little patch of red in green, but it stays where it is.  The moment has passed.  It’s time to move on again.

Around the corner, in a shady part of another lake, carp can be seen cruising just below the surface, slurping down floating goodies. A plague fish back home, here they are treated with a reverence akin to religion.  People set up temporary shrines on the bank side, with beautiful matched sets of parallel rods and space age bite detectors.  Serious carp fishers are a breed apart, a sub-cult of fanatics in an already fanatical team.  I used to want to be one.  With the kind of sensory perception worthy of a deity, the carp seem to be able to sense the presence of a hook in the floating goodie attached to my line.  All around my bait rubbery, extendable lips engulf otherwise identical snacks.  Eventually my bait is sucked under and I connect with a fish.  It seems rather small compared to the fish round it.  It seems a rather different shape to the fish around it.  It turns out to be some form of hybrid, and John does not even bother to put a net under it – he holds the line near the back and shakes the fish off.  I had hoped for more from my first British fish on the 21st century.  John notices my disappointment – but he has a point!  A few casts later I actually hook a carp, which, with a kind of growing predictability, throws the hook. 

How can this not feel like defeat? How can this feel like such a genuinely splendid day, when I am, to all intents and purposes, failing to do what I wanted to do – which is catch fish.   Is it pure nostalgia?  Is it the outlandish green of the vegetation, the reflections on the water, and the birdcalls in the bushes? Is it that I can talk about the things that are important, and in doing so come to have a better understanding of their value?  Or is it just that I have a day to myself, to things I want to do – a rare treat for a parent.  Or is it all of these, mashed into a day that so far has yielded almost no fish, but a highlights reel of stories.

The brief disturbance has scattered the other fish, and I think it’s time for a break and a bite to eat.  Mallard pay us a late lunch visit and we talk of many things.  But mainly we talk of people I only knew through their bylines in the weekly Angling Times or Mail, the monthly Coarse Fisherman or Angler; it feels like I am being introduced to ghosts.   We leave the lake to the tricky fish and head towards the River Welland. 

Once more this is an echo of the places I used to fish – small and out of the way.  We scatter a handful of sweetcorn – opened with a butterfly-handled opener – into two swims and wait a while.  John goes in search of crayfish, an American invader that feeds the Chubb and makes then grow fat.  I sit surrounded by tall reeds and flick a simple rig a little down stream.  Once more I rest the rod on my feet, making a mockery of the amount of gear I used to carry. The rod tip bounces over once, and then folds round and I strike.  The fish – as yet unseen – heads for the backside vegetation on my side of the river; if it managed to get any closer in it would have to get out of the river and climb a tree.  I don’t know who is more surprised when I slide the net under a large chub – the fish or me.  I notice that at some time between the bite and the net I have stood in the river, and water is running out of my right boot.  It seems my mind was elsewhere.  John returns, and if it’s possible seems even more delighted than me.  The fish – the largest of this species I have ever caught – would push 5lb (maybe!).  Although it would be at home on the other side of the country, I am grinning like the Cheshire Cat.  Five minutes later and a similar sized fish sheds the hook inches from the net.  But I am still smiling.

The day ends and I return to Walnut Tree Farm.  I tell tales and spin stories from the day.  I don’t stop smiling.

In Norwich Cathedral, just a handful of miles from where I was fishing, there is a famous sculpture of sorts.  In the roof of the cloisters is a Green Man – a face looking out from behind a wreath of leaves.  Many people think these faces are a representation of an old woodland spirit or sprite.  A mischievous face from the green past of belief:  on still days when I fish, I feel that it may still be out there, weaving magic and casting spells.

I smile at this thought and smile about the ones that got away.

A kind of homecoming


As a kid I would visit London once a year.  Leaving in the dark of a Friday evening and returning in the similar gloom of Sunday afternoon.  Always in the winter, always in a coach packed to the brim with bags and boy scouts.  We would sleep in loose friendship groups on the floor of a large hall and eat at long shared tables.  On Saturday afternoon, most of the other kids when to watch a game – Arsenal, Spurs, maybe even Chelsea.  In those days Division One was the highest league, and most games were still played on a Saturday. Later we would play five-a-side deep into the evening in a building, which for want of money had a roof, but no walls, and as a result was called The Lid.   I joined in under a kind of resigned sufferance.

Given the chance I played solitaire.  Card after card.  Hand after hand.  Today, such behaviour would be labelled odd, and intervention or diagnosis would follow. 

But I did not go to London for the company, the prospect of a cooked breakfast or the sport.  I went to go to the Museums.  South Kensington for Natural History and Science, further afield for the Imperial War Museum.  It never occurred to me that I would not go to London again next year, and it never occurred to me to go anywhere but the museums.

I would be dropped off at the front door in the middle of the morning and told to be back there at a set time in the afternoon.  I never remember having company.  I never remember having a watch.  I never remember missing the afternoon pick up.  Today, such treatment of a child would be labelled odd, and intervention or prosecution would follow. 

But in the years that followed something changed.  And London – but not the museums – lost its pull. Somewhere along the line London shifted from being a point of interest, to being a point of departure.  I went to London to catch planes to elsewhere, and said – with a confidence that was not based on experience – that I did not really like the place.  That it was too big, too crowded.  That it stood for the things that I did not – money, privilege, power based on might rather than right.  That it was a place that sought to impose its own will over the rest of a country that did not always see eye to eye with its values and morals. 

I went from enraptured wandering to arms length rejection.  And now I was going back.

No amount of seat-back entertainment or foil wrapped food can soften the impact of 24 hours of economy class flying.  Relaxed kids and good company help, but you still awake from what passes for sleep and think – Apocalypse Now like – “Shit, I’m still in seat 48C”.  When you try to convince yourself that having only eight hours to go – a full working day – is a point of celebration, you know that the flight is long and the destination distant.  I flash an “OK?” question sign at the kids and they reply in kind.  Everybody is too tired to speak.  Everybody just wants to arrive in London.


Even when a stranger is holding it up, the sight of your own name on a board is a welcome relief after a long trip.  And one of the advantages of not having a work a day surname is that there is unlikely to be much confusion about whom the sign is for. 

In a delightfully short time we are being driven away from the airport and towards Hampstead.  I have no idea in what direction we are moving.  I have no real idea what time it is.   Many of the houses by the road look old and grey, clad in cement wash and decorated with satellite dishes.  There are few green gardens, but the cars parked outside are new and shiny and expensive.  Shopping trollies, stolen and lost.  The scattered wreckage of take-away meals. London seems to be living up to my expectations.

I know that no city shows its best face near the airport – but there are few things more comforting than evidence for your own misconceptions. 

But then things start to change.  Trees.  Bushes.  Weedy patches with butterflies.  The untidiness of neglect morphs into the chaos of the untamed.  This is a complete surprise.  Urban roads look like country lanes.  The first of what would be many, many woodpigeons walks by the roadside, blue grey with a clergyman’s collar, and a noisy wingclap launch.  The green does not last long, and soon we turn into Hampstead High Street, with its shops and traffic. But just beyond the shops and pubs, the well polished cars and white errand vans, is something I did not expect to be there.  A green face in the grey.  A heath for health.  A place to explore.  But first I need a cup of tea and some time to stand rather than sit.  As ever, we look in cupboards and under beds, the kids narrowly avoid armed conflict about who gets which bed; we settle in.  It’s a long time until we can go to sleep, even if my body says otherwise.

Its time to go outside.

The world through the window of the taxi from the airport had looked both familiar and strange, a confusing sensation of memory and discovery.   But it was a sensation that was buffered by technology, mediated by the glass and air con.  But now I was outside and everything came through unfiltered.  A sound and sightscape so immediately and remarkably familiar that it was like I had been here before, even though I was a stranger.

Each little sound and sight melded together. A kind of sensory flow that was as enjoyable as it was startling.  It was like tuning back in to a radio station that had been a favourite – the unchanging channel on the car radio – but one that had slowly faded over the years.  Faded until all you had left was a kind of highlights reel of things that could be remembered for what they were, but not recalled for how they sounded.  There were sounds that you knew you had known, but now had to be recalled. In the past they would have been head front and centre and named with certainty, so familiar that I would have known and named them without even knowing I was doing it.  The kind of background check that concentrates on things that sound misplaced.  Now everything sounded misplaced, everything clamoured for my attention.  And strangely, it sounded quite loud.  At times it had the same feeling as that “tip of the tongue” word that you are sure you know, but just won’t come.  Not the cheeping of sparrows that had followed me to Australia, but the call of birds like Blue Tits and Great Tits, which I had not heard for years.  The complex, silver whistles of warblers, brief and uncertain at the height of summer.  I had an urge to name the sounds, to call out the bird, but I also felt restrained by the knowledge that I was not longer sure.  Each call was a dilemma; a point of uncertainty that reinforced that this was only a kind of homecoming, not a complete return, and not a visit to somewhere new.

We walked away from the traffic noise of high street towards the Heath – down roads that met at strange angles and had names that probably once meant something.  The network of streets and lanes was unplanned, but still strangely logical.  Cut-throughs between places made sense, you could get to where you could see along roads that were probably older than the houses that lined them.  The network had been walked by feet long before the words “town” and “planning” had been morphed together into a kind of urban confusion.  There were street trees that may have been planted before the country I now live in gained a formal name and a debated constitution. 

As I walk off the hard road and on to the softer soil of the heath I am overwhelmed by green.  It felt like a sudden rush of spring, impossibly swift after the winter of Australia.   Long leafy avenues stretched away from the gates, the light soft and welcoming.  The edges of the paths are flecked with moss.  Even the surfaces of the ponds are capped with duckweed.  It’s green as far as the eye can see. 

But how can this be?  I am still in London.  How can there be places like this in a town I knew to be nothing but grey and unfriendly?  I have been home (if that is what it is) for less than four hours and already things that I had known have had to be unlearned.  Things that I have held to be true have turned out to be false. 

A butterfly waits, spread-winged on a thistle.  A robin, cautious in the shadows, waits below a green wooden bench.  A cormorant fluttering its neck, waits for the cool of the evening.  I seem not to be the only one taking stock. 

A jay shrieks – unmistakable even after all these years – from an oak tree.  A nuthatch calls in its explosive pop.  The radio station from earlier times tunes and settles.  Memory unfolds.  I start to find things to show the kids.  The kids start to find things to show me.  I still have 28 days to go.  I still have a long time to remember what I thought I had forgotten.

In the darkness below a beech tree a squirrel moves from stance to stance.  Rapid, fluid, comical.  My kids stand and stare and, lacking all woodcraft, run after it.  The squirrel takes refuge in a tree but is soon replaced by two more.  Then a third.  The kids move slower, the squirrels just as fast.  The kids stand still and the squirrels remain.  The whole family stands and watches, caught in the first day novelty.  To many – maybe most – they are just despised greys, an import that has grown to the status of vermin.  But they are still squirrels.  They are still the epitome of distraction.  We watch until they leave, rushing through the fingered undergrowth of hazel. 

As the squirrels run off, my kids join then, searching of things un-Australian. I laugh at the connection between the squirrel and me.  They are neither old enough to be native nor fleeting enough to be a visitor, they are a strange combination of both.  I begin to understand how that feels.

The descent to the platform of Hampstead tube station is the longest and deepest in London.  Once you are down there a notice tells you not to take the stairs back up, lest the 15-story climb proves too much.  You don’t want to come out of the tube in a box.  The tiled floors and filigree metal work speak of a time when there was a concern for both utility and aesthetics; people may have died of hunger and diseases that today would only cause slight concern, but the railways looked good.

I hum a tune.  “Victorian tunnels..... moss oozes from the pores....dull echoes”.  The train arrives with a rush of air, smelling of oil, stale and warm.  The faces bluring in the passing windows regain a recognisable symmetry as the train slows.  In the cabin people talk to their traveling companions.  The single and lonely don’t speak at all; they arrive at their destination silent and unacknowledged.  There is little to be seen from the windows except rippled blackness.  Even though I know it’s not, the tube tunnels could be huge. We slide along, the human cargo in the barrel a transport syringe. 

We arrive at our destination, are tempted by chocolate, and walk towards light.  Busker music filters from an unseen part of the station, people talk on their phones: deals, arrangements, gossip.  Few people know we are here; fewer people in the crowds notice us – just faces in a sea of other faces.  For reasons that defy logic I expect to meet somebody I know.

While there are far fewer pigeons than I had expected, the unfinished corner of Trafalgar Square is marked with a large blue cockerel.  The pigeons seem to have been replaced by crocodile lines of school kids wearing high visibility waistcoats, shepherded by collie dog teachers, snapping at the heels of stragglers, bags full of asthma puffers and medical release forms.  It’s a thankless task – criticized as unadventurous by those who survived the benign neglect of former years and undervalued by those who have never sat on the hard side of the teacher’s desk.  An independent soul in a porkpie hat eats his apple by a statue.  Double-decker buses, black taxis, unarmed policemen.  I don’t know who is seeing more that makes them smile – me or the kids.  Like a million other people they climb on the lions and smile for the camera.  I don’t climb, but I do smile.  It’s not memory that I experience, but it feels like it ought to be.  Too many pictures by other people for this to feel fully new, too many TV shows, too many icons stacked one on top of each other.   To my own surprise I find that I like London.  Wonders never cease.

It is hot and the flags hang limp, barely moving.  A large blue fly bothers the nostril of a guard’s horse.  Armed police stand by an impressive metal gate.  Such a thing would go unnoticed in some places, but in the UK, machine guns on the street are still the exception rather than the rule. 

We walk along straight streets, past memorials that urge us never to forget, towards the Houses of Parliament, towards the seat of a government I am glad to no longer call my own.  It seems that the Mother of Parliament’s is content to neglect many of its children.  I feel uninvolved in the passion that others feel, but I know full well that the same thing is happening at home, where the poor do not drive cars and the desperate are sent back out to sea in orange lifeboats.  What have we all done to deserve these people?

At the end of the road the two great symbols of state watch each other across a busy round about – the Palace of Westminster and its Abbey.   On one side of the road the living control the day-to-day lives of the nation, and on the other side the dead hold sway over its myths.  So many of the great and the good (or maybe not) have moved from one side to the other and still manage to control the destiny of the living they have left behind.  A statue of Churchill, stoop-shouldered and heavy, looks towards the tower of Big Ben.  A great leader, a powerful man, a man removed from power by the will of the people, sick of war and wanting a new start; the third part of this legacy so often overlooked.  Round and round the buses go, different I’m sure, but always looking the same.  People wait for an election, but the buses still look the same.

We take shelter from the sun – who would have thought – in a park near the Queen’s London house.  People in new suits and uncomfortable looking shoes leave by one gate while people with automatic weapons guard another.  Clearly and justifiably some guests are more welcome than others.

A squirrel rushes from its hiding place in the long grass and seeks shelter in a sycamore.  Comfortable in its ancestral home, it pauses its run to look at us. 

The light stumbles and trips through the leaves of the sycamore tree.  Maple leaves, so similar to the ones above us, are set below a sheen of flowing water.   The dead of Canada – including three troopers that died in a town that almost bears my name – are remembered in a sloping memorial that some children play on.  I’m not sure if this is inadvertent disrespect or an expression of the freedom that sacrifice brings.  I’m saddened by the thought of the first, and wonder if this is the best place to celebrate the second.

We seem to be surrounded by power and memory; a potent mixture for sure.

The next day we head for the Museums.  If memories are to be conjured anywhere it will be here, in these often visited buildings.  But we enter by the back door, and nothing looks familiar.  Too many renovations, too much change.  But thankfully, no reduction in wonder.  Even the opening displays hold me; huge crystals, ancient plants, fossils of animals so strange and otherworldly. These are traditional displays, static and rich with labels – where, when, what and why.  The building blocks of knowledge and understanding, unadorned with bells and whistles.  My kids stop to look as well: it must be some kind of inheritance.

Brief exploration leads to places I recall.  Huge reptile dolphins, won from the rocks of Dorset by a lady in a crinoline dress, hang as panels on a corridor wall.  A statue of Darwin looking out over the main entrance, where a huge dinosaur stands to challenge the myth of unchanging creation.  The whole Natural History Museum really just an inventory of the way one idea can change the way we know the world.  An idea that is so simple and elegant that some people still find it hard to grasp, and campaign to have it struck from the record.  The truth should set us free, even if the heavens may fall as well. In slow moving crowds, surrounded by dinosaurs, in galleries packed with the unending variety of insects and in an empty space shared with the bones of humans long gone and strangely different, the connection between them and us – nature and humanity – slips away.  There are human stories on both sides of the glass in this museum.  I just wish more people understood why.

In the museum I meet a fellow blogger.  It seems strange to recognise a stranger I have never met, but a stranger with whom I have had many Internet fractured conversations.  She knows a good place for tea.  Always follow local advice.  That evening I meet an old school friend.  It seems strange to instantly recognise a face I have not seen for half a lifetime.  25 years of stories, punctuated with pints and a bar meal.  Scrabbling to catch up on things we had missed, scrabbling to restring the bonds that tie.

These are not the only, nor the least of the strange collisions that make up the days here.  Prejudice against evidence.  Fiction against fact.   The present against the past.

We see towers packed with jewels, guarded by ravens.  We straddle the line where the world divides and drink tea below a copper-bottomed tea clipper.

The days are warm, and the nights feel hot.  Dawn brings slight cool breezes and the screams of swifts.  

I’ve reached a kind of home and a kind of holiday.  Next month seems very far away and that feels good.