The first full moon of the new year is known as a ‘Wolf Moon’. Wolves are breeding now and their night time howls are part of that mating ritual. The nearest we got to seeing predatory activity in the middle of the night was at this time last year when Kim, on her way to the bathroom, caught sight in the full moonlight of a dog fox elegantly acing through our yard. It is said that their rabbit kill rate tends to increase with greater illumination, though I also think their prey must be better placed to see them coming and have a better chance of escape! In Buddhism, other eastern religions and native north American folklore rabbits or hares replace the European ‘Man in the Moon’ interpretation of lunar surface markings.
The ancient association of odd behaviour and mania with the waxing moon is of course well known. ‘Lunacy’ derives from Luna, the Roman goddess of the moon, who rides her silver chariot across the heavens each night. Kim & I seemed to be subject to more disturbed sleep patterns than normal on the night of the most recent lunar eclipse (10/11 Jan). Waking early I mistook moonlight seeping in around window blind and skylight shutters for the early dawn so prepared to rise, only realising otherwise when I was sufficiently awake to check my bedside watch. Never mind, the views from the garden windows, of utter stillness in highlighted definition, brought a calming sense of wonder, an eventual return to bed and renewed slumber.
Imagine the scene. The night before D-Day, June 1944. Standing with ground crew by the hangers your eardrums threaten to explode with the noise of 20 C-47 Douglas aircraft taking off from Station 479, a US Air Force base in Lincolnshire. Their task is is to spearhead the allied invasion by dropping paratroops, supplies and equipment behind German lines in Normandy. For months these same aircraft, flying just above the waves of the channel to avoid radar, have been systematically dropping navigational equipment at key locations in preparation for this moment, the greatest sea borne landing in military history.
Fast forward to Boxing Day 2019. The only noise you hear is the constant though subdued drone of the AI, out of sight beyond the forest’s western edge. From time to time you also hear gunshots; game is being hunted somewhere. Our airfield was built rapidly, to a standard pattern, during 1943 and handed over to the US 9th Air Force whose pathfinder squadrons were based here; some 3,000 personnel living in huts and tents at one time. Closed at the end of hostilities in 1945, the base was handed back to the RAF who used it to store munitions. RAF North Witham closed for good in 1960 and the land was given over to the Forestry Commission (now Forestry England) who gradually replaced woodland that had been cleared to make way for the airfield in the first place. Oak, beech and other native species now proliferate alongside stands of pine. Colonising birch has made inroads into the concrete and tarmac runways while willow and alder are well settled in bogland by the original perimeter road. Big rectangles of concrete that make up Runway 30 remain fully exposed and the whole expanse remains deeply impressive when its vanishing point is obscured by today’s atmospheric grey mizzle, framed by bare trunks or swags of distant conifer.
In recent years this otherwise forgotten architectural remnant of war has been the site of a series of illegal mass raves, which explains the flat bed of an articulated lorry blocking the vehicular access by the official car park. We’d love to return in Summer as these woods are also home to two nature reserves rich in rare butterflies. Volunteers have registered sightings of purple emperor (dwellers in the deciduous tree canopy) as well as numerous sightings of silver washed fritillary and common blue alongside rare species like grizzled and dingy skippers. Those same spirited volunteers turn up every March in working parties to patiently clear scrub and saplings in the rides between woodland. These sheltering glades are the equivalent of wartime runways for butterflies and moths, securing their precious life cycles and enriching our own lives in the process.
The Summer nests uncovered by autumn winds / Some torn, others dislodged, all dark / Everyone sees them: low or high in a tree / Or hedge, or single bush, they hang like a mark. (From ‘Birds’ Nests’ by Edward Thomas)
Well, not quite everyone….I was oblivious to many until recently. A good half dozen springtime homes now finally logged around the premises. One or two are remarkably complete, despite the ravages of rude weather. I particularly love this little cone shaped nest, lined with wool and flecked with moss, woven into an intersection of branches in the copse that shelters one side of our yard at the west end. Having observed pipits active round that quarter in the summer I thought it may have been one of theirs but on discovering both meadow and tree varieties are usually ground nesters have had to revise my opinion. Now believe they’re more likely to be the seasonal abode of a member of the tit family, as the other nests in the east copse – lodged in the dense branch framework of either pine or elder – are identical in construction. For the second year running all the usual small garden birds have declined boxes put up for them around the place, clearly preferring their traditional open air pitches…Clearly they know what’s best!
Meanwhile inside the house there’s an almost daily awakening of small tortoiseshell butterflies. Having secreted a winter berth to settle down in, either warmth or light has roused them out of hibernation. One will appear out of nowhere to flutter noisily around a lamp shade, crawl unsteadily over carpet or repetitively climb window panes. I gently capture them in a jam jar and remove each delicate torpid form to the garage workshop; hoping they will find the cool relatively undisturbed haven they need in order to fully shut down for the season.
40 tonne loads of timber pass our door on an regular basis. Extracted from the country’s biggest man made forest the stripped conifer trunks are on their way to be chipped for board or for burning in a new power station. Once a year though, since 2000, three specially grown trees from Kielder are spared this mundane destiny. A 45 year old, 40 foot high Sitka Spruce along with two smaller specimens are felled, carefully wrapped and loaded onto one of the local contractor’s flat bed lorries. The boss himself drives the precious load all the way down to London. Very early the next day he delivers them to officials of the Palace of Westminster. A crane then winches the biggest tree into its prominent place in the square outside Parliament, where it is decked with lights. The middle size tree goes into the great medieval hall while the smallest ends up in the Speaker’s apartment.
Trees from the forest also featured in another star turn last week. We went to see ‘Robin of Sherwood’, the mass cast Christmas show from our remarkably talented amateur drama company which they stage for four nights in the Town Hall of the biggest village in the valley. Both sides of the spacious auditorium were lined with conifers from the forest, while scaffolding on one side allowed the players to run through the dense greenwood above us. AV back projection on the stage allowed more forest to be projected while town scenes saw the rolling in and out of painted flats. Nottingham Castle being burnt down by Robin and his men was vividly created by fiery stage lighting & stage fighting. Unlike many other amateur companies nationwide there is no shortage of young men hereabouts willing to take roles and many children too had parts. Brilliant community production that created a memorable immersive experience.
I also loved the themed bar at the back of the hall that they used for scenes involving Friar Tuck. The tent like structure had beer taps dispensing a local brewery’s fine products, with names like ‘Merry Men’s Delight’ and ‘Friar Tuck’s Tipple’. Home made mini pies and pasties were also on offer. In the raffle at the interval we won one of the play’s spare props – a leather purse of gold wrapped chocolate coins! All in all a lovely heartwarming and laughter filled way to launch the Yuletide festival.
After the road and off road roaring around of the recent car rally it’s an apposite time to feature a more traditional and leisurely form of transport. Our rural thoroughfare is regularly used by horses and riders. The neighbours at North Farm for instance have developed livery as part of their operation and nearly all farms hereabouts have a horses or ponies on site. The fox hunters hold occasional meets in the area. A road safety campaign – Dead? or Dead Slow? – is currently being promoted through a joint initiative from Northumberland County Council and the British Horse Society (BHS).
The figures quoted by the BHS are sobering. Over the last 9 years 315 horses and 43 humans have been killed in incidents on UK roads. In the last year, of incidents reported, 73% were caused by cars passing too closely to horses, 32% of riders reported road rage or abuse while 31% were caused by vehicles passing too quickly. BHS also urges riders to always wear bright or reflective clothing along with fitted covers for their mounts as well as LEDs when necessary. All good advice, and timely as Winter draws in.
For many years the RAC Rally was a popular event in and around the forest. Remote location, oodles of space and absence of population made it the ideal location to test the skills and resilience of the nation’s rally drivers & navigators. TV coverage gave it great publicity and profile. Eventually the kudos and rough glamour faded as roads and tracks, torn up and unusable, needed repair or replacement and other even wilder locations in Wales and Scotland presented better alternatives for the dedicated petrolheads. Today an annual motorsport event still takes place right on our doorstep, albeit on a reduced scale with less environmental damage. The Roger Albert Clark Rally is the longest of its kind in the UK, covering 300 miles in forests and 700 miles on public roads. More than 100 classic cars from the 1970s and 80s took part in the regional leg of the event last weekend, which lasted 12 hours and covered 100 miles beginning and ending at Carlisle. We heard the competitors before we saw them as day turned into night, gearing high and low along narrow twisting roads. What photos I took with the phone were only possible because the vehicles had to slow for our 90 degree corner. Later, going out for the evening, we scented the lingering petrol perfume on the freezing air and passed pulled over support vehicles and the odd customised car of bright stripe all caked in mud doubling back to complete this day’s leg of the overall five day event.
One tree that really thrives in our temperate wet climate is willow (Genus: Salix). There are 400 varieties worldwide. The narrow leaved osier types that thrive in the damp corners of our garden provide good windbreaks and grow in the heaviest of clay soils. They provide nectar in early spring for butterflies & moths and are beloved of the needle billed tit family who thrive on the insect life sequestered there. Willows are the first trees to break into leaf in Spring and the last to fall in Autumn. Luckily none of our plants are near to drains where their tough aggressive roots can cause real problems, cracking pipes or blocking flows. An earlier ‘Country Diary’ entry recorded our coming back from North Devon with cuttings from red and green willows planted in marshland at the foot of friends’ commercial apple orchard. The quickness of these slender sinuous trees is remarkable and their utility to man down the millennia unquestioned. The supple strength and flexibility of withies (rod like cut whips) are perfect for making all manner of containers, from every kind of basket to fish traps coracles and coffins. Living sculptures – domes, tunnels etc – are playful features in many public gardens. Its healing properties too – the active ingredient of Salicyclic Acid in the bark – are well known. (The synthesised form being Aspirin). The wood has also been used commercially for the best quality artists charcoal.
The village post office, newsagent and shop is at the heart of our local community and greatly valued. The son of the owners is keen to make it more relevant by promoting regionally produced products and by being more creative with the two window frontages. Our friend Amanda at Southridge farm got involved in this plan and recruited Kim to help, who in turn got me to join them. We cut and stripped our red and green shrubs, now well established between pond and field boundary, to use as wicker work, fashioning from small bundles a whole batch of stars, in all sizes. Sara and the grandchildren on a weekend visit joined in too so our workshop production rate soared! Great fun and very satisfying, quietly putting the pentagrams together; securing, binding and trimming. A & K and another friend Margaret worked out a design to fill the window in situ and hung it with wires. The largest star was highlighted with LEDs for effect, set in a firmament of tiny stars footed by evergreen holly and firs.
When I first came here to the corner house back in 2010 I was greeted with the sight of a petite black and white cat carrying a dead vole in its mouth, tip toeing rapidly towards me along a slow curve of dry stone wall. Already some eight years old by then Pip had come originally as a kitten from North Farm, arriving half feral and stand alone fearsome. An astonishing runner up of trees and lethal predator of birds and all manner of small furry mammals. A winning combination of slim good looks, set in handsome black and white Geordie strip, this feline was a natural born killer who worked her passage as a skilled pest control operator. As late as this summer our mature ill cat was catching baby rabbits and decapitating them. We never found the heads but their bodies would be deposited in corners about the house, to be detected in due course as much by smell as by sight.
On this day last week, Pip died. Diagnosed with cancer a few months back, we watched with concern the tumour on her right side growing ominously. The decline was gradual yet the miaow remained as strong and urgent as ever with an appetite that showed no sign of abating until just a couple of days before departure. We found her in the morning, stretched out & still warm where we’d left her the night before, on the rug in front of the wood burner. We buried our old friend in her natural garden habitat, at the foot of the curving bank below an old oak post, wrapped in her carry box blanket with a farewell note from Kim slipped in. Pip’s spirit will be quite at home here. We’re resigned to sensing a passing night shadow; finding her curled up in the strawberry beds in the heat of summer; leaping off the porch bench of a chill morning wanting to be let in; gamefully enduring an infant’s attempt at stroking or padding up to greet visitors with her affectionate easy nature. It was that quality that allowed our youngest grandchildren, Emily & Lois, when visiting as toddlers to overcome their fear of felines. Here’s a picture that captures that relationship.
A full on fortnight travelling the roads of Northumberland & Dumfries touring Haunted: Ghost Story Readings for Halloween. A bonus of returning home late at night has been two separate encounters with a tawny owl. Kim and I were enthralled to suddenly light up one in the middle of the lane, between home and village and along a sheltered stretch where we have previously spotted hares. Motionless, caught in the stationary car’s headlights it stared at us for a while, walked around a bit before slowly taking uplift into the safety of the hedge line trees. Something tells us this is a young bird, born this Spring, seeking to establish its own territory. Back home we hear them sometimes at this time of year, uttering those famous mating cries and hope they are answered and fulfilled.
Nights reading stories at our nine mainly rural venues proves the easy part of the operation. Being the producer too involves days sat at my desk posting social media, doing administration & generally catching up on everything else that needs doing before leaving the house. The need to get some physical exercise each day or doing tasks that are not work related is even more urgent than usual. Mending a small section of our field boundary wall where stock had dislodged it offered the perfect fix on both accounts. Not that I’m an kind of expert but the very act of reforming this jigsaw in stone was very satisfying. How long it will last is another matter. I suddenly remembered, with wry amusement, that I had been here before a decade or so ago. Not for real, just virtually, voicing a professional waller putting in a new length at Grey Gables for Nigel Pargetter in The Archers on Radio 4. I remembered also my character’s disgust at being asked to put through holes in his handiwork to allow safe passage for badgers.
Another satisfying job in the outdoor exercise department has been the raking of leaves. Narrow yellow willow, palmate spotty maple, fingery golden oak and fawn fingers of ash with a sprinkling of pine needles will all make for good leaf mould to add to the soil, improving structure. In preparing the crude chicken wire round pen to receive this autumn’s rakings I discover a small toad, not best pleased to be disturbed from its dark damp hideaway. I wonder as I covered him with a great duvet of fallen leaves whether this is the same toad I found earlier this year in the bags of compost I’d brought over from the compost bin in my yard garden at Lancaster. I hope there’s more than one about and that this hideaway prove a worthy home for such delightful garden friendly amphibians.
It’s become something of a joke with me ‘Places you must visit on the A487’. Something of a Welsh scenic highway; from mountain passes to estuaries, wild woods and pasture, seaside towns, cliffs and high moors. The subtitle might read ‘What took you so long?’. In all the years of driving down to Pembrokeshire have only now – two weeks ago – got round to turning off between Machynlleth and Aberystwyth at Eglwys-fach (former parish of that great Anglo-Welsh poet R S Thomas) to visit the RSPB wildlife reserve at Ynys-hir. (Eng: Long Island)
Ynys-hir richly rewards visiting, we quickly discovered, because it is so large and can thus boast diverse habitats. From raised bog and reed beds to estuarine marsh, ancient oak woods, fellside and traditionally managed lowland pasture grazed in part by hardy hill ponies. We combined two of the habitat walks on offer, stopping at two of the reserve’s seven hides to take in sightings of waders, ducks and geese at one and an overview from the other atop the wooded hilltop. The third walk – to the saltmarsh estuary of the Dyfi – we look forward to discovering next time we visit.
Another part of this large reserve is the fern covered hill inland, t’other side of the A487, known as Foel Fawr. We spot Red Kite circling. These magnificent birds are now a common sight in Wales and a great conservation success story. Their numbers were reduced to a mere handful of breeding pairs by the mid 20th Century but thanks to the efforts of concerned bodies and naturalists like Bill Condry they were brought back from the edge of extinction and are now something of a tourist attraction in their own right. Condry and his wife Penny rented a cottage on the estate from 1959 and a decade later became the first resident bird wardens when the RSPB bought the site and opened it to the public. Today rare birds getting the conservation attention are the Ospreys breeding just up the road at the Cors Dyfi site run by the Montgomery Wildlife Trust that I had visited earlier this year. However the RSPB warden confided in us that said fish eating breeding pairs actually prefer to do their hunting here, at Ynys-hir!
We stayed overnight with our friends Geoff and Diane at Penrall’t, their wonderful new and second hand bookshop in Machynlleth. A full time retirement project for this enterprising and hard working couple; they cleverly converted the former butcher’s shop into what has to be the neatest and (for its size) most comprehensively stocked little bookshop in Wales. They’ve recently added to the cultural offer with the addition of a gallery for contemporary photography three doors up which is also situated – you’ve guessed it – on the A487. Another attraction in this short stretch of highway is the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) whose seven interconnected galleries showcase the work of a wide range of Welsh artists and craftspeople. Privately run, with grant aid, this fabulous series of commercial galleries is always a joy to visit and the perfect non-metropolitan venue to make new artistic discoveries.
Kim & I were both struck by the current exhibition of the work of ‘The Secret Artist’ Roger Cecil (1942-2015). Abertillery born, working class, whose talent took him to study at the Royal College of Art in London in 1962. He rejected the road to commercialism and the allures of social mobility, returned to his terraced home in the valleys and dedicated the rest of his life to following his own road, living a reclusive existence, inspired by the land and built environment around him. The result , a remarkable run of paintings that has earned Roger Cecil a well deserved, long overdue reputation, since his passing and ‘discovery’, as the most outstanding abstract impressionist that Wales has produced. A genuine eye opener of a show, curated with compassion and insight. A reminder that, as John Lennon put it, ‘a working class hero is something to be’.