A Wild Life

“Don’t tell anyone your name is Jones.”

This regular reprimand from my mother whenever we set off to shop arose from the sight of her daughter sporting muddy knees, hair askew and (frequently) a grubby face.  The words were always issued with a gentle smile and twinkle in the eye. 

Our parents were urban dwellers and distant from the natural world. They were not our wildlife educators. Some learning in our rural Lancashire life came from self-tutoring: of touching, smelling, looking and, occasionally, tasting all that the natural world offered us.  There were ten children in our lane and we were a happy band of naturalists.  The lane and fields were our playground.

Weekends and school holidays were seasons of exploration.  Cool, windy, wet or foggy days honed senses while dry, hot summers bleached our hair, burnished our skin and gave us a different sensory experience. All were feed stock for our fertile imaginations. Time was absent from our lexicon: our arrival home was determined by how hungry we felt.

All were feed stock for our fertile imaginations
[The author is second on the left. Note the misshapen T-shirt, suitable field gear!]

Our territory comprised the lane with hawthorn shrubs markng the boundary between lane and field; fields to front and rear of the houses; and the barn at the top of the road.  We didn’t realise it, but we learnt much from Raymond, the farmer’s son, a lofty red head who wore the air of a man of the world – even at the age of ten!  It was he who gave us our first sex education:

“The man and woman lie on top of each other and that’s how babies are made.”

Oh how we laughed.  What a preposterous idea!  Sex education aside, Raymond taught us crop production, tractor design, nesting birds, and pond life. The fields illustrated the cycle of plant life: sowing, germination, growth and harvest.  Harvest time was fun. We mimicked the movement and rhythm of the threshers and balers. The farmer would ‘accidentally’ drop bales in the corner of the field so we could make a den, while the tractors continued their lumbering journeys across the field. Cereal stubble scratched our nutmeg limbs, as we manoeuvred our imagined constructions.

We learned where lapwings nested and knew not to disturb the birds. Swallows lingered on the telegraph wires in the lane. A pond in the back field showed us the beauty of newts, water boatmen, tadpoles and frogs.  This was also where we voyaged, courtesy of the raft made out of wood oddments. The wonder – and frisson of fear – as to whether the raft would sail and support us inspired countless upgrades to the raft.  Only in adulthood did I realise that the ‘sea’ that we were sailing was probably a former marl pit and only metres in dimension. To us, we were the Swallows and Amazons of Lancashire.

Gardens gifted a suitably wild world.  Our father didn’t subscribe to the neat and tidy garden philosophy. We explored for lizards among piles of brick rubble. Rumour of a former well in the garden fostered frantic digging.  We never did find that well, but I loved the feel of soil between my fingers: perhaps the seed was sown here for a career in soil science.

Daddy looking dapper in the back garden.
That hedge was another source of adventure

A mini woodland in the back garden marked a boundary with another field.  I made futile attempts to climb the large birch, its smooth grey bark providing no foothold. Scratched legs were marks of honour from crawling and clambering among the hawthorns as we checked where birds nested. 

That wild life ended on a most beautiful June morning.  The sky was the sharpest of blue, birdsong was ripe, and the heat would reach suffocating levels later in the day.  Early that morning, our mother came into the bedroom that my brother and I shared.  We both think we recall the phone ringing.

“Daddy’s gone to heaven.”

            Devastating and unexpected, we had no sense then of how that event would change our lives.  We suddenly acquired the moniker ‘war orphans’, even though World War II was already history. I was eleven, my brother was eight. Within two months we had moved to the suburb of a large city, changed schools and learned to  be a single parent family.

            Our wild life would continue, but in a markedly different way. The gang of naturalists was consigned to memory. I am forever grateful for that early wild life.  It sowed the seeds of a passion for the environment.

Hum of humanity

The reserve was looking good, very good. It enticed people to share its space.  The car park was full. A phoenix from a brownfield site, Pickering’s Pasture Local Nature Reserve bears the badge of regeneration proudly.  Sitting on the banks of the River Mersey, it provides the subtlest taste of wildness for those urban-dwellers who seek it.

Field scabious nod towards the River Mersey

Pickering’s Pasture emerged from the inheritance of the dirt and corruption of the Industrial Revolution thirty years ago. Formerly a municipal waste dump it is now a showpiece in the local authority’s portfolio of public parks.  

Designed as a nature reserve from the outset, the reclamation allowed meadows to adjoin woodland and waterside habitats.  A viewing screen overlooking Hale Marsh provides fascinating wader encounters. The meadows are resplendent at this time of year. Meadow crane’s-bill, Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Field scabious, Bush vetch, Yellow rattle and Common knapweed are just a few of the species that invite the novice naturalist to identify them.  A few years ago a group of French botanists visited the site and were overwhelmed by its diversity. It was difficult to tear them away for lunch. French accents mingling with Merseyside ones was just how it should be.

 A sudden movement caught my eye.  A pair of meadow brown butterflies scuffled over a scramble of bramble. Later, I am beguiled by the burnished brunette of several gatekeepers.  In my moments of captivation I was transported to my childhood years when such sights would be commonplace in my rural Lancashire home.

Meadow brown on common knapweed
Gatekeeper

My friend and I sat in companionable silence watching the incoming tide.  No Mersey bore this time, but the river filled itself steadily, banishing sandbanks and channels.  A small flock of dunlin skittered along the river’s edge warning others of the impending diurnal eviction. A little egret lumbered past, its vivid white a marked contrast to the murky meandering Mersey waters. A log glided by. I wondered how many times it had been propelled up and down river in recent days, a restless migrant.

Water can be calming, invigorating or terrifying. Today, its gentle upstream swelling eased me. Yet something simultaneously uneased me. I was not sure what. It was a subliminal something. Dogs trotted past, but there was no barking. People walked by leaving only a gentle purr of conversation in their wake. Lycra-clad cyclists, facing the challenges of the Trans Pennine Trail, thrummed past, heads down, intent on their distant destination. These were all distracting, but not disturbing. Then, the source of my discomfort dawned. It was the hum. Background and vague, but intrusive nonetheless.  It was the hum of humanity. The hum of our obsession with fossil fuel.

 Once your eyes are opened you can no longer fail to see. Rail and motor traffic trundled over the Runcorn bridges, off to Cheshire or North Wales. Factories muttered as they provided goods for our material world. Aircraft droned high in the sky. All were consuming fossil fuel and emitting carbon dioxide, that invisible foe.

Here was a snapshot of human contrast. Our all-consuming arrogant persistence to carry on life as ‘normal’ against the desire for nature, wildness and harmony with the environment. I won’t be here in thirty years’ time. By then we must have reduced our CO2 emissions to save future generations from the ravages of global heating. I hope that, by then, the hum of humanity will be muted. I hope even more that my nature reserve will not have been consumed by our seemingly avaricious need for development.

Comma among grasses and field scabious

Mother and Child

             It’s like a museum display, but there are no labels.  No explanation as to what might have happened here. Some surfaces smoothed from years of human polishing shine purple and rubified. The scales have gone now: it’s all that polishing. Hands gliding over the limbs; children straddling, imagining they are galloping a horse to far-off places.

            But this is no horse.  The mother’s ribs, bleached like a whale’s, support her prone figure. It’s difficult to tell which is mother and which is child.  Where is the beginning and the end?  No defining alpha and omega. It is an enticing, intimate union.

            The mother fell some time ago, that’s clear. Is she sheltering the child or was the child born of disaster? Are the mother’s limbs cradling her infant, or is the child reaching up for embrace?

            From her moribund womb a child emerged and grew. It now savours the remains that will nurture it for some time. Unlike the mother, this child is erect, stretching upwards and vibrant. We cannot know if the messages that passed between mother and neighbours can still pass between mother and child. The messages of nurturing, co-operation and survival have helped the mother support her community. Can this continue now she is dead?  Will another one become the matriarch or will the group now become a message-sharing commune?

            This intimate mother and child scene is encased in darkness and gloom.  Others encounter it only if they are wandering aimlessly. The sense of endings is amplified by fencing ochred and rusted, twisted and tumbling and by garden debris thrown to its ultimate fate.  There are moments of light.  Gentle zephyrs skirt around diffusing the sense of sadness. Ravens kronk softly in the distance, their call surprisingly gentle. Mayflies skitter around bejewelled, catching the sunlight, like flakes of mica released from rock. An infant sycamore seedling stands firm and erect, but an interloper nonetheless.

            This is Hawkwood. A dark copse of conifers now overlooked by the big house with which it shares its name. In the wood the only label is a name sign hammered to a tree. Several of the trees stand angled, remnant signals of some distant storm that threatened to kill the community. But our mother and child at the centre of the diorama reveal that while one may die, another survives. 

Our mother and child reveal that while one may die, another survives.

 I was inspired to write this piece when I witnessed a small copse of trees at Hawkwood Centre for Future Thinking, near Stroud. I had recently finished reading ‘Finding the Mother Tree’ by Suzanne Simard.  Some of her wonderful work was still clearly on my mind.  I saw a fallen conifer tree at the centre of the copse. Aanother tree seemed to have emerged from the fallen one. Both seemed fused. It was as if the fallen tree was nourishing the emergent one.  Hence, my thought of mother and child.

Hidden Gems

Like many major cities, Liverpool has its grand architecture, major parks, and coastal honeypot areas.  These all entice visitors.  Whilst I too love these, I have a particular affection for those smaller, forgotten places that the visitor may overlook.  In this occasional series I will highlight some of those places that I love and want to share.

  1. Allerton Towers

Liverpool is well endowed with city parks, refuges for those wanting to escape city life.  Some are well known; others less so. Allerton Towers is one of the latter.  Located in south Liverpool this 34 acre park sits at the junction of Menlove Avenue and Woolton Road. Its rather unassuming entrance on Menlove Avenue gives no sense of the beauty within. Step inside the gate and a path lined with holly trees leads the visitor deep into the park.

Allerton Towers, a hidden gem in south Liverpool

Allerton Towers is the site of a former Italianate mansion demolished in 1937.  During droughty summers, the footprint of the building is visible through the grass.  It must have been a magnificent sight in its heyday. Some features of the mansion remain, most notably the orangery, the walled garden and the stable block, now home to the Merseyside Challenge Volunteer Trust. This group supports a range of activities for young people led by passionate volunteers. 

The orangery, Allerton Towers
Merseyside Youth Challenge Trust provides diverse activities for young people

The walled garden is a place for peace and reflection.  One pathway into it is marked by a laburnum arch which comes into its own in late May/early June. Not of the scale of that in Bodnant Gardens, but attractive nonetheless.

The walled garden, a place for peaceful reflection

Throughout the year, Allerton Towers provides an interesting location for birdwatching.  The dense shrub cover and mix of veteran and younger trees provide excellent food and nesting sources. Walk past the orangery early on a spring morning and your ears are assailed by sublime song from blackbird, goldfinch, greenfinch, nuthatch, robin, song thrush, and tits.  Occasionally, a jay will dart through the trees and, on one occasion, I witnessed the sight of a tawny owl being chased by a pair of blackbirds.

A site for excellent food and roosting for many bird species

A wide track leads from the rear of the stable block down towards Woolton Road.  Sandwiched between sandstone walls and embraced by an archway of trees, this is a joy to wander down in spring and summer. Engage your imagination and picture carriages being driven up here to the stable block. 

Sandwiched between sandstone walls, the track evokes memories of older times

Allerton Towers is a small, but perfect park with much to recommend it.  It is well worth spending time there simply wandering around a delightful site. Roadside parking is best in Woolton Road.

Bushcraft

I was confined, constrained, locked down. A ‘hiraeth’ for the natural world had overcome me. My sagging shoulders and listless limbs needed to be outdoors.

The Arctic conditions spawned sub-zero temperatures. The dry air seared every inhalation. The birds would need extra food. Sunflower seeds, suet crumbs and cereal filled the bird feeder. The birds would come soon, wouldn’t they?

Soon curiosity overcame me.  Had the birds arrived? The feeder sits between two St. John’s Wort bushes, the gateway to my Secret Garden. My eyes are drawn there.  Here wilderness prevails. Life in that wilderness in winter is hidden and subtle, but it’s my wilderness. 

  My mental image was of countless birds fighting over the bounty.  There was nothing. Not a single bird was seen.  Then, a flicker, a flash, a flare of light: movement at the base of a bush. Garden sprites were ready to spin their magic.  In the briefest of pulses a Great tit darted out, snatched a seed and retreated rapidly to the security of the bush.

 I was bewitched. The theatre was entrancing. Twiggy branches shielded perching birds, their palisade against predators. The bully arrived.  The robin stayed longer, its rufous breast blazing when it paused feeding. A blackbird sifted through the fallen sycamore leaves, turning each over like a Primark customer in search of a bargain. It found the apple I had left for it. It ate voraciously, glancing up guardedly, that golden eye ring signalling its alertness.

The slightest movement within a bush marked a hint of a bird ready to feed.  Soon Blue and Great tits, robins, blackbirds, chaffinch and greenfinch had all taken sanctuary in between feeding spurts.  Now I see the bushes in a different light.  I might have felt confined, but the bushes had opened my eyes to another world. The outdoors seen from indoors.

 I was still confined, constrained, locked down, but my garden had provided a fix for my nature yearning. My ‘hiraeth’ had softened and I hadn’t even left home.

Year End

My lovely River Mersey was in lazy languid mood, the grey waters flowing imperceptibly as the tide ebbed towards Liverpool Bay. I too was drifting towards the end of 2020, a year that gave us more than we could have imagined.  I was at my local nature reserve, a place I came to for peace and reflection so many times during the year. My place of release and healing.  Nature’s therapy.

The River Mersey was in lazy, languid mood

Across the channel chimneys shed plumes which also seemed to be steering towards Liverpool Bay. It was at this time of year many decades ago that I went in search of chimney plumes: well, how else would you spend a Christmas break?  I was a first year undergraduate and we were taught climatology by a rather fierce, but highly competent young lecturer.  She would later become an internationally renowned professor of climatology.  At that time she advised us to go out on cold days to watch out for chimney plumes.  Apparently, the form of the plumes gives an indication of atmospheric conditions.  My fragile first year intellect found this challenging.  Little does she know though that I have never forgotten that experience, so every time I see a chimney plume especially at this time of year, I am transported back to those heady undergraduate days.

I am at the reserve to fill the bird feeders.  The birds are ready and waiting, almost forming orderly, socially distanced queues.  I have become the Pied Piper of Pickering’s Pasture.  Robins (always the first), blue and great tits are the eager ones while skulking blackbirds eye up my dispensations of seed. I move away slowly from the feeders, my sideways glances witnessing the sequence of birds making the most of this instant bounty.  It feels worthwhile to have trudged through the marshy morass to ensure a food supply for the birds.

Robin always first in the queue

This year has not been without its challenges, but I have much to be grateful for.  The natural world has continued to heal and inspire me, as it has done for so long.  Every visit to the reserve is different; I imbibe it all and value it. As I prepare to leave I know that I shall witness my river in so many moods in 2021; the trees will once again burst fully into leaf; birds will come and go, their movements driven in part by the imperative to breed.  The meadows will bloom and insects will thrive. The soundscapes will vary and I will immerse myself in them as oystercatchers pipe, geese call and curlew will gift their haunting call to the waters. I will attempt to capture all these moods in my writing. 

Happy New Year everyone and may the natural world keep you grounded as it does me.  As I leave the reserve my spirits lift as I sight clumps of snowdrops in bloom.  There truly is light after dark.

Early blooming snowdrops lifted my spirits

Windhover wars

[Note: some content relates to the poem The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins, an uplifting poem. The use of the word ‘windhover’ for kestrel dates from the early 17th century.]

            The cliffs at Oglet slip and slide slowly towards the River Mersey. Water dominates here. Rainwater percolating through surface soils escapes the cliff’s clay matrix transforming it into a slurry. The foot of the cliffs is pounded by high spring tides which gnaw at the clay. It is borne away to furnish a sediment bed for the river.

Oglet shore: the tide was high, but had left us a braid of sand

            It had been several months since we had said we would visit the shore, but our diaries never agreed.  My friend, an avid birdwatcher, had heard of the pressures on this coast, ten miles from Liverpool city centre. The land adjoining the cliffs is currently Green Belt, but likely to have that status removed to allow for airport expansion and development. There are considerable concerns for the impact on the local ecology.

            The unstable cliffs challenge the vegetation. The result is a mosaic of coarse grasses, thistles, and occasional teasels while tottering shrubs and exposed roots speak of the ravages of the tides. Willow and hawthorn provide temporary roosts for roaming birds. This day blackbirds, dunnock and robins shuffled among the undergrowth.  From late spring perching passerines pause to gather strength.

            We gaze upwards as a kestrel flies into view.  Another then appears along the cliffs.  In their paired hovering they focus on potential quarry in the cliff vegetation. They beguile us. We are transfixed.  A behaviour never seen before puzzles us.  Instead of the usual head down pinpointing of prey, the nearest bird keeps looking around as it hovers. Left – right –down: at regular intervals it is monitoring its aerial territory.

            My friend shouts, “There’s a third one!” I am too slow to see it. Then the pace shifts.  Tension abounds. A clash of wings and a tumbling of feathers alert us to a battle taking place.  Two kestrels are fighting: a windhover war of wills. They land on the ground, pause with wingtips touching. Is this the end or waiting for the start of an avian pas de deux? It feels more like a subliminal, ‘Seconds out, Round 1’. The female of the pair is forced onto her back on the ground. Does her supine submission denote the end? She fights back. It is vicious, but she is floored again. The male kneads her breast. His vivid yellow feet and black talons are capable of destruction.  Are we to witness a kill? As if reading our thoughts the female rallies.  Wings clash. Here we understood Gerard Manley Hopkins’ description of ‘brute, beauty and valour’. Two windhovers in combat, but why? The season was wrong for breeding, so perhaps the clifftop territory was the heart of the battle.  Maybe it was a toy fight; two juveniles testing their skills.

They land on the ground, pause with wingtips touching

            We will never know the reason for the skirmish, but both of us agreed that this encounter was truly memorable. All that we witnessed after that seemed tame.  A grey heron glided past, a sergeant surveying the shallows. The cool breeze had chilled us.  It was time to retreat, but we were uplifted by what we had seen that morning.

Summer’s end?

It is 08:30 and the outdoor temperature is 11oC. Forecasters warn of the coldest August Bank Holiday for many years.  I sense a scent of autumn or have I imagined it? The sky is tantalising, the 6 oktas of cloud teasing at the potential to fill the sky, or to fragment to allow some late summer sun to penetrate our bones.  I hope for the latter, but I’m not here for the weather.  I’m here for wildness.

I am alongside the River Mersey at Hale Head once again, one of my favourite haunts.  Despite the lurking shadows of housing, warehousing and factories, there is some sense of ‘wildness’ here. August Bank Holiday carries a certain resonance.  Hints of summer ending, memories of returns to school (with exercise books backed in sugar paper, new school uniform and highly polished shoes) and thoughts of a downward slide to winter.  The grey, cool conditions and the relatively early hour reassure me that my walk should be devoid of people. Perfect for reflection and contemplation.

High tide will rule in two hours. Channels are filling, fingers of gurgling eddies penetrate the rockier parts of the shore and waders adjust their feeding positions. The lane down to the shore marks the route of a former ford across the river, and implicitly reminds us how river courses change through time.  There is no hint of a ford now.  Apparently, Prince Rupert’s army took this route across the river during the Civil War.  No self-respecting military would chance that now.  The website www.halevillageoneline.co.uk relates the tale of a nineteenth century man wishing to test the integrity of the ford by walking to the opposite shore and back.  Allegedly, he returned with the incoming tide up to his neck and holding his clothes about his head to keep them dry!

Channels are filling, fingers of gurgling eddies penetrate the rockier parts of the shore

A narrow, clay path separates the fields from the marsh which, in turn, separates land from the water world.  The muted call of a Reed bunting tests my ability to find it but the bird wins.  It must be secreted deep within the Phragmites reeds.  Field margins are marked by a ribbon of wildflowers with Corn marigold dominant now, its yellow dispelling some of the day’s grey. Most flowers are now past their best, but the presence of countless white butterflies attests to the continued provision of nectar.

Any perception of solitude is soon dispelled when a man with binoculars, ‘scope on his back and pushing a bicycle, stops to enquire if I’ve “seen anything good?” We chat for a while.  He’s clearly much more experienced and accomplished at bird watching than I am.  He is a regular recorder of breeding birds on the river and I fear that he may discover my novice status.  A short distance along the path something in the field distracts us.  A contour line embroidered in brown, black, and white alerts us to something unusual.  Binoculars reveal hundreds of geese making the most of the newly harvested cereal crop: a high quality takeaway.  Mainly Canada geese, but my companion reports the presence of some Barnacle geese as well.  I spot one lone white goose and, whilst hoping that it might be something rare, realise that it is more likely to be a domestic bird wanting to adventure with the throng.

A contour line embroidered in brown, black, and white

Mr Super Birdwatcher and I part, he clearly keen to be divorced from this novice.  The tide is filling more estuarine channels now and sun appears to be winning the battle with cloud.  The distant Welsh hills look alluring, but I am happy with my patch.  Small flocks of goldfinches bounce low over the fields. I hear the distant ‘kronk’ of a raven, pause to assess its direction and then am rewarded with the sight of the Corvid flying over the fields.  Ravens always inspire me; I am not sure why.  The margin between land and water is thinning.  Soon the tide will nibble the salt marsh.  The unmistakeable profiles of several curlew are rewarding.  A grey heron is vigilant of the incoming waters seeking a more diverse breakfast menu. 

Sun appears to be winning the battle with cloud

Moving towards the lighthouse I see yet more geese contouring across two fields.  People in search of wildness have increased in the past hour and I start to hear them commenting on the geese: “Wow, look at all those birds”, “I’ve never seen anything like that before”, “What are they?” Novice I may be, but I enjoyed explaining the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of the spectacle.  It is always a joy to enlighten re the natural world.

The tide is now only 30 minutes away from its fullness and waders are congregating in preferred locations.  A group of 20 Ringed plover partner with a smaller group of dunlin.  They are spooked occasionally and take flight, but soon return to their dining table.  Some small, pure white birds drift with the ebb and flow of the water, until my binoculars tell me that I’m not seeing birds; I’m witnessing the journey of moulted feathers as they drift gracefully and vulnerably at the water’s edge.

It was a delightful ramble among the natural world.  My August Bank Holiday has been one of growing sun, depleting cloud, incoming tide, diverse bird sights, flowered benevolence to insects, and other humans just enjoying what they see.  It is a marked contrast to Dylan Thomas’s memory of an August Bank Holiday in Swansea, but I am grateful for mine:

August Bank Holiday

A slap of sea and a tickle of sand.

A fanfare of sunshades opening.

A wince and whinny of bathers dancing into deceptive water.

A tuck of dresses.

A rolling of trousers.

A compromise of paddlers.

A sunburn of girls and a lark of boys.

A silent hullabaloo of balloons.

From ‘Holiday memory’, Dylan Thomas, 1946.

Meadows resurgent

Pickering’s Pasture is a small Local Nature Reserve on the banks of the River Mersey close to the north-western town of Widnes. Its current status as a honeypot for visitors during these days of Covid-19 belies its past.  Sited on the margins of a salt marsh in the 1940s and 50s the site became a dumping ground for chemical and municipal waste. In 1982 Halton Borough and Cheshire County Councils cleaned up the site and restored it to its natural state, creating a publicly accessible and maintained nature reserve for people to enjoy.  The site was opened to the public in 1986, officially became a Local Nature Reserve in 1991 and achieved Green Flag status in 1999.

SEA VIEW
Benches allow for periods of restful reflection overlooking the mighty River Mersey

Long after I left university I attended a lecture given by Professor Tony Bradshaw at which he outlined the restoration of Pickering’s Pasture.  Tony had taught me during my undergraduate days and had inspired my fascination with urban ecology. Little did I know then that years later I would become a Friend of Pickering’s Pasture.  The Friends are a group of volunteers who carry out various roles across the site from ensuring that bird feeders are filled during the autumn/winter months to maintaining benches and picnic tables, to establishing a wildlife garden and generally fostering public education about the flora and fauna of the site.

The reserve is a complex of woodlands and meadows with footpaths that allow access to all ecologies throughout the year.  A bird-watching screen overlooks a small scrape adjacent to Hale Marsh.  This can gift beguiling avian sights, particularly during the autumn and winter for the Mersey’s Ramsar status reflects the huge numbers of waders that frequent it then.

VIEWINGSCREEN
Bird viewing screen overlooks scrape & marsh

Covid-19 has curtailed the meetings and activities of the Friends so I had not visited the reserve for some time. A few weeks ago I realised that had to change so I invited an ecologist friend to join me.  The scenes spread out before us were overwhelming. The meadows were the epitome of fecundity.  My friend gasped in ecstasy as she listed all the plant species in flower.  Tufted vetch (Vicia cracca) crept along, interrupted occasionally by yet to flower Black knapweed (Centaurea nigra).  Seed heads of Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) reminded us that this plant that parasitizes grasses would help to suppress the more invasive members of this family.  Patches of Bush vetch (Vicia sepium) on the river side of the reserve spoke of a shift in soil conditions that clearly suited the plant.

BLACK KNAPWEED
Black knapweed

PURPLE LOOSESTRIFE
Purple loosestrife

Ten days ago another friend visited the reserve and told tales of meadows alive with butterflies and dragonflies. I felt compelled to visit. Yet again the reserve did not disappoint.  It was an ecological feast and even more satisfying when I reflected that these meadows had arisen on a site with such a chequered history.  The diversity of life there was dizzying.  Should I gaze on the Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) or allow my sight to be distracted by the white butterflies cavorting among the plants? Large, small and Green-veined white butterflies danced and dashed among flower heads. Tall candles of Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) caught my eye, but then so did the Speckled wood butterflies making the most of sunbathed leaves of geranium.  The battered wings of some of these butterflies bore witness to the intensity of challenges they face during the all-too-short summer. The pale lilac of Field scabious (Knautia arvensis) was outshone by the more intense mulberry of the now flowering Black knapweed. A sudden movement in the corner of my eye drew me to look down among the leaves and I was uplifted to see a tiny Common blue butterfly. I see these so rarely that it was a joy to encounter it here.   Flora and fauna were stupefying; I was inebriated by all that lay around me.  The exhilaration continued when the rear path of the reserve opened onto a sunny glade. Brown hawker and Emperor dragonflies fluttered and hovered in ways that were both mesmerising and frustrating, the latter from a photographic sense.

COMMON BLUE

As my visit drew to a close I wished that I was artistic and could convey the beauty of the spectacle of a kaleidoscope of muted pastels on a huge canvas.  Or could be a composer who could allow sequences of chords and arpeggios to coalesce the glories before me. Sadly, I possess neither talent and am conscious that my word weaving fails to impress the glories of nature resurgent at the site. I did come away with hope and an uplifted heart that nature can colonise the most unusual of sites to allow flora and fauna to thrive for future generations.

I will leave it to a visitor who posted on TripAdvisor to convey some of what a visit meant to him.

“No matter what the weather Pickering’s Pasture leaves a lasting memory.

There’s something about walking along a fast flowing river that inspires you.

In the winter the chill off the river makes you snuggle into your coat and in the summer you can sit there and watch the meadows come to life with the beautiful array of flowers and wildlife in abundance.” [Tomreed 264, posting on TripAdvisor, July 2020]

Gazing in Garrigill

Gaze on a landscape, breathe it in and inhale its wholeness.  Hear its words; read its story. Eyes can move from the coarse resolution of the entire landscape down to the fine tuning of an individual field, gully or turn in a path. I am on the summit of Hartside Pass, almost 600 metres up into the intoxicating upland air.  Before me a landscape, beautiful yet contrived; behind, the bleaker lands of the northern Pennines also bearing scars of human influence.  This location is the favoured destination of motor cyclists who prefer to gaze on landscapes of mean machines – Harleys, Yamahas, Suzukis– and where talk is of speed, acceleration and implicit aggression.  I prefer to speak to the land.  Here is to gaze on what Rob Cowen has called “the deep past and the far future”.  Here I can discern what was and what might be in the landscape.

HARTSIDE_C
To gaze on the deep past and far future, Hartside Pass

From this vantage point, the horizon is marked by the Lakeland fells, testaments to an era when the earth trembled.  This was a time when, with much rifting and writhing, the earth’s crust was crumpled and crenulated to form the hills of today. Casting my eyes to the middle distance I gaze on parts of the Eden valley.  Here are fields and woodlands, fragments of what once was.  Here are delineations and divisions almost certainly a fraction of what they once were.  Hedgerows replete with hawthorns for nesting, damp recesses for Jack-by-the hedge were removed to make for larger, more efficient economies (or so we were led to believe).  There is a beauty in this landscape, but in our dialogue it is talking to me of lost habitats, neglected niches and diminished diversity.  I can linger for only a short while, yet in that time I neither see nor hear a single bird.  Now I must head to Garrigill.

My companions to the north are the blanket peats of Benty, Meethaw and Scarberry hills.  Coarse, bleached cotton grasses soon to boast fluffy, cotton-ball flower heads intermingle with vulgar heathers and secretive Sphagnum mosses.  Later in the year bilberry will flaunt its fruits.  Occasionally, the blanket is torn and I catch sight of the beautiful black peats furtively secreting sagas of ecologies gone-by.  Ornate pollen grains, faceless macro-fossils and smooth spherules of burnt carbon can all tell tales of land-use change through the centuries.  To the south, lands drain into Black and Rowgill Burns.  Here the landscape wears a very different face.  This is a landscape of mosaics, the practice of moor burn writ large.  This is “prime grouse shooting moor”: birds dare not linger here on the Glorious 12th.  As I enter Garrigill my doused spirits are boosted: birds are abounding here!  House martins chatter around the lane, perhaps sharing reviews of village nesting sites: here is rampant fecundity.  I catch sight of a swift scything across the skies.  Soon I realise there are more.  I can’t look for long – I’m driving!  In minutes I arrive at my cousin’s home to be greeted with tea and cakes (always delicious!).  Flitting between the lounge (where bird feeders are in sight) and the kitchen I am given updates on the recent birding activity: which birds are nesting where, what has been seen recently and what has been the impact of some tree felling in the adjacent churchyard.  My cousin and I are soul-mates and our souls are sharing news of the natural world.

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Black peats furtively secreting sagas

It is now 04:30 and I am wide awake.  This is not unusual for me, nor is my getting out of bed to head for the window.  I gaze out on a lingering gibbous moon soon to cede to the ever-advancing dawn.  For now it is an opalescent orb presiding as a sentinel over a sleeping world.  These are the secret hours when all seems quiet and clandestine.  Movements are slow and steady, predator and prey skulking to eclipse the other.  In a few short minutes the sun will rise, so with the strengthening light I can see more.  The mist over distant Cross Fell is splintering into wisps that will succumb to the growing warmth.  The break of slope opposite me is marked by an array of buttercups, a ranunculaceous display of yellow, amber and gold.  Momentarily I think I sense movement, but perhaps it’s the day-spring light playing tricks.  Rabbits begin to mooch, but then there is a different movement.  A curlew has awakened, its decurved bill prospecting the soft soils for earthworms, insects and larvae.  It appears to be alone: is there a mate nesting somewhere awaiting the bounties of its partner’s probings?  More light and a scuffle.  A Carrion crow and lapwing are tussling in the sky. This is not a head-on, battle to the death, more a ‘keep off my land’ warning.  The ungrazed fields and wet grassland nearby provide the low cover the Lapwing needs for nesting, but can leave it vulnerable to marauding corvids.  Lower down the field one rabbit is motionless.  I fear it is dead.  Suddenly, those fears are assuaged.  The violet head and red face-sides of a male pheasant appear and, as the bird wanders languidly across the field, the ‘dead’ rabbit scampers off. Day is now with us and my increased acuity enables me to look to distant fields to an unexpected sight.  Roosting on the fields are many Black-headed gulls.  With no large bodies of water nearby I puzzle over their wanderings.  Cow Green reservoir is 15 km away.  Would they travel from there to spend their days in a field in a Pennine village?  Perhaps these were failed breeders, gathering to share their disappointment, a collegiate commiseration of sterility.

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A ranunculaceous display of yellow, amber and gold

The final gazing experience of my stay was along the banks of the emergent South Tyne River.  Storm Desmond had wrought its wrath here and all had changed.  The river no longer flowed along the meandering curve of its north-east bank preferring now the ease of a straight channel.  Perhaps it was in a hurry to join its cousins to become the great River Tyne as the waters neared Newcastle. The abandoned channel, now bereft of water, revealed the energies of past storms with pebbles and boulders evidence of upstream geologies.  As I approached the river a noisy and excitable cacophony of sound erupted: the oystercatchers were nesting nearby.  My cousin always reports their arrival, but this was my first experience of their piping gatherings.  No-one would dare interfere with their nursery.

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Channel now bereft of water

My bird watching always provides opportunities to watch and gaze, whether on birds, landscapes or habitats.  My north Pennine wanderings this time were not abundant in diversity, but were rich in sights that touched my soul.  I had reflected on the deep past and the far future and was the wiser for it.