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.