In defence of the humble seagull

The local press is full of shock horror stories about the modern devils of the high street: the seagull.Apparently some one in Berwick has taken to shooting them, and our local MP is warning against such vigilante action.¬† I have to agree with those who write about the disgusting mess the seagulls leave in our towns and cities. A brief walk around sunny Berwick a week or so ago, left that in no doubt. Would you want to sit here?Other councils are talking of handing out hefty fines (¬£80!!) for those who feed these high street pests.¬† There is no doubt that the seagull does have a sharp eye for rubbish!A recent walk around Berwick revealed another world high up above all the human busyness¬†… a world of watchers and waiters … waiting to swoop presumably for that tasty morsel …However, we are lucky because we see another side of the gull story. And just at the moment I’m missing them.

One of the pleasures of the slower wintry days has been field-watching. These fields, looking south towards Scremerston and over the coast towards Holy Island, are very familiar to us now. Here, after heavy rain last November, you can see the old parish boundary marking the borders of the Municipal Borough of Berwick-upon-Tweed. It reappears in the form of the curved waterway running over the field between the two larger ponds.The ponds lingered – and came and went.¬† As did the gulls. Sometimes there’s just a solitary gull …More often there’s a host of gulls arriving …and¬†working the field¬†…There are visitors too on the far pond …They come and go …Now the fields have dried up and the winter crops are growing so these visitors have gone …Not entirely. A¬†solitary gull has been known to come and eat at our table …Leaving in haste, when sighted! They are funny birds to watch close up because their descent and take-off can be so very clumsy.We don’t have to go far to see the gulls on the beach. Just how glorious can they be when sighted in feeding frenzy as on¬†this cold winter’s day several years ago.An everyday walk down to the Tweed shows them speckled over the river …Sometimes you see a little more besides …They have a talent for striking the stylish pose – always good at finding a fine vantage point.And they can be hilariously funny too.¬† One summer we watched this young greedy gull pester its parent for food …The parent gave way, fed the baby bird (aren’t they the ugliest babies you have ever seen?!!) …And then tried to leg it as the youngster begged for more …We’ve also seen¬†harsh reminders on the beach that life for the gull can be all too nasty, brutish and short …Part of our beach treasure collection at home is this seagull “crown” …We think it belonged to a seagull chick or fledgling that was unfortunate enough to meet a raptor very early in its life. The underside is soft downy feathers and fragile bone.The cats love playing with it … just check out this natural born killer … those claws!Perhaps the best time to enjoy gulls is when they plough the fields – more often in the autumn round us than the spring.Aaaah – the light on those wings as they scramble to follow the plough!If you’re of a certain age (as I most definitely am), you’ll recall Richard Bach’s book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. In very very brief, it’s the story of one particular gull’s striving for perfection in flight.It’s about soaring, swooping gloriously above …Catching those perfect thermals …About exhilaration …About freedom …I love Jonathan Tulloch’s description of seagulls as “raggedy angels”. Writing of his stay in a Birmingham hotel in a recent edition of the Tablet, he says: “[…] all I could hear were seagulls. I opened the window and their kookaburra-like laughter filled the room. There they were, soaring over the skyline on slightly tattered wings like raggedy angels.” How very much more vivid is this evening view of Tweedmouth for the gull soaring in the sky above?¬† It hints at that raggedy angel’s view – worlds and aspirations and hopes of which we mere mortals can only dream. (Apologies both because I am being slapdash in using the common term Seagull for what I know are several different breeds of birds.¬† And secondly, because my iPhone5S is woefully inadequate to the challenge of photographing these fantastic birds.)

An absence of birds and rain

It has been a slow and boring March for us here, with painting, painting – and it seemed – yet more painting …We had a new porch built outside our front door last December.¬† It’s on the colder, north side of the building, so gives us extra protection with a double entrance as well as accommodating all our muddy, messy outdoor wear.All sorts of things had to be done to make it a useful part of the building …And it is finally just about there …But the painting – the oh, so very¬†boring painting – dragged on and on.¬† Little bits all over the house and garden also appeared in need of a paint in the fresh clean light of spring days …We are now making up for lost time, and outside as much as possible, catching up on the garden.Stephen’s potting up of seeds and young plants includes making these nifty little newspaper pots – so ingenious!Sometimes he has a not-so-helpful helper with him …The salad greens in the greenhouse are feeding us comfortably …But it looks like we will have a while to wait for any crops from our raised beds.¬† The problem isn’t just the very cold nights we are still getting (although our days are blessed with sun a plenty).¬† No, it’s the absence of rain …Our water butts are empty.¬† We have light rain showers occasionally, but they are so very light as to make little or no difference.¬† I can’t remember when we last had a decent downpour. ¬†The water butts remain almost empty. So most reluctantly, we have got out the hose …It’s easy for us – but not so easy for the local farmers.¬† At the beginning of April, there were still ponds on the local fields.¬† We watched these with great¬†interest as they provide home and sustenance to the local gulls.This is what they look like now … parched …Walking around the local farms, there is evidence aplenty of parched fields.¬† This is an interesting spot because it is at the bottom of fields that run down to the sea on the right.¬† In other years – in wetter winters – there has not been the same marked run off as we are seeing this year. You can’t really tell from these pictures, but this winter wheat crop has barely grown at all.It’s easy for us to water our slow-growing raspberries plants, but quite a different matter for a farmer with huge grain fields …Elsewhere, the monopoly of bright yellow early spring flowers is over.¬† Those daffodil heads are in the compost heap, contributions to another year …There are flash-coloured tulips about now and lots of forget-me-nots … oh dear, I see something else that¬†needs a fresh coat of paint! The forget-me-nots really come into their own on the other side of our garden fence … this year they are tiny plants … usually double the height …I always think the very best thing about gardening is the surprises, the things you have forgotten you planted.¬† These entirely white narcissi are exactly such a case in point.¬† I have absolutely no recollection of planting them, but I think they are just exquisite, fragile and elegant … Ghost flowers …Another delight this year is the japonica flowering for the first time.¬† Usually in the autumn I collect japonica fruit from my friend in Devon to make quince jelly.¬† Perhaps this year, I’ll have a couple of my own fruit to add to this year’s jelly …There are disappointments too.¬† The rosemary bush has died – and just look at the scorch marks from salty easterly blasts on the snapdragon plant in the foreground …The other big disappointment for us is the absence of birds.¬†It’s true that there are pigeons¬†… hours of entertainment for Eggy (hunched in the foreground)¬†…But there have been no ordinary birds like sparrows and blackbirds for weeks. In February, Ilsa brought a song thrush in to Stephen.¬† He was able to rescue it, and as it seemed fine, we hoped it¬†would survive. However,¬†we later¬†found it dead in the field.¬† RIP beautiful bird.So now the cats wear collars …They don’t seem to be very perturbed by the collars, and are out and about enjoying themselves as usual …But have they frightened the birds away for good? We take heart from a new young blackbird who¬†has been seen around,¬†and a sparrow was sighted on the bird feeders today.

There are still larks. On my knees, as I weeded the flowerbeds, with the sea on the horizon, the sun on my back, my head was full of the sound of the song of the larks – singing their hearts out in this glorious place. Rain and birds …. please come back!

Another London visit

Just over a week ago I was in London Рbusy, bustling, exciting, varied Рso much to see, so much to do. I love visiting London, love the excitement, the endless small details of interest, the big statements of serious important world-changing matters in one of the largest cities in the world.

A visit away is always unsettling – even the kits feel it. Eggy seems to think that if I can take Northumbrian heather to London, I could take her too.eggy-in-my-suitcaseIt was nominally a visit to see family and friends.¬† To visit my nonagenarian mother (92!) in her Surrey nursing home …selfie-with-my-motherAnd sit in the¬†autumn sun on the bench marking my father’s life …rhes-benchThis London trip was different because both my children have moved to areas of London that I don’t know at all, and for one who hates using the Underground like me travel round London is always a challenge!

My daughter’s bedsit was the easier visit because it’s at Mornington Crescent, within walking distance of King’s Cross station where I’d arrived. These tall houses remind me strongly of those at Earls Court where I used to live in the 1970s. helens-flatThe building on the right in the photograph above is the back of the amazing Carreras Cigarette Factory¬†(now the London headquarters of Asos).front-of-asos-headquartersThis is just the sort of the thing I love about London – the serendipity of discovering fascinating buildings, and architectural detailing everywhere.¬† Black cats were part of the Carreras branding, and if you look carefully, you will see them right high up over the windows. I would love to see what it’s like inside.cats-all-over-the-asos-buildingHer little flatlet allows for window sill picnics …candlelit-window-picnicAnd there’s just space for Mum to tog up¬†before gadding about London.togged-up-for-london-selfieThe highlight of my visit with Helen was a trip to the Victoria and Albert museum.¬† I used to visit regularly, but for one reason and another haven’t been for many years.¬† We are watching ITV’s Victoria¬†which is a lot of fun even if I doubt some of the nineteenth century veracity.¬† A major theme is Albert’s struggle for some sort of role, and with this in mind, I was amused to see on the entrance fa√ßade that Victoria is very much in the senior position.¬† She – with orb and crown and sceptre – stands¬†high over the entrance; Albert – a mere mortal – is far below over the main door.v-a-museumThe great delight again with a museum such as the Victoria and Albert museum is the serendipitous treats all around.¬†Look at the marvels of the design of the original building here – that stucco, those arches, a rotunda above – coupled with a magnificent mediaeval altarpiece – and to crown it all a striking piece of modern glass.¬† v-a-at-its-bestSo much good to see that you don’t really know where to start.¬† I had it in mind to visit the glass gallery after reading LittleLollyTravels blogpost London Baby!¬†some while ago. On the way to the glass we were seduced first by the tins …fancy-tinsWhat a particularly desirable biscuit tin this one is!literature-tinAnd then the metalwork … metalwork-from-castel-henrietteThis fantastically snakey green wrought iron piece is a window grille from Castel Henriette, designed by Hector Guimard.¬† Sadly, Castel Henriette has been demolished, but if you travel on the Paris Metro, you can see more of Guimard’s¬†metal¬†designs at some of the entrances.¬† What chance that this lovely piece ended up in the V & A?!!
castel-henrietteThe glass gallery – when found – was indeed a treat.¬† From the¬†1969 sculpture “Lollipop Isle”, designed by Oiva Toikka for Nuutaj√§rvi glassworks …lollipop-glassTo the dawn of the twentieth century¬† with these exquisite German drinking glasses (I posted this picture on Instagram and everybody declared the crocus glass on the left to be their favourite – I wonder which is yours?) …german-wineglassesTo the nine earlyish Egyptian or perhaps Iraqi fragments of glass, dated to¬†sometime¬†in the 7th – 12th centuries¬†(this case contains lots of fascinating treasures, generally¬†Middle Eastern¬†glass, of the same period) I am blown away by the pattern on these glass fragments¬†…glass-fragmentsOnly a snapshot of what we saw, but there is really no way to justice to this remarkable museum.

My London travels then took me (very bravely by Underground – buses would have involved hours of travel) to Walthamstow where my son now lives.¬† His cottagey terraced house couldn’t be more of a contrast to the mansions of Mornington Crescent.walthamstow-terraced-house But nice detailing still mostly unspoilt (despite the¬†conversions to modern windows), and I think William Morris would have approved.¬† Walthamstow is very much William Morris’s place. What a way to improve a car park!william-morris-wall-paintingHe¬†grew up in Water House, and this fine building is now the William Morris museum.water-house-william-morris-museumMorris is intriguing because he defies fashion with an enduring appeal.¬† He was enormously popular in his lifetime, of course.¬† In my youth in the 1970s, he had a comeback, fitting in with the hippy vibe rather well.¬† And now, he seems to be all the rage again – check out this article on New York Fashion week!

So, all the patterns are very familiar – either I’ve had furnishings made of them sometime in my life, or known someone who did.¬† Part of the fun then in the museum was looking for old friends.

It was also intriguing to see how the designs were created. Here’s the Trellis design, both in its raw design state, and as a completed wallpaper print.¬† We know this 1862 print as Morris’ first design for wallpaper, but, in fact, it was Philip Webb who drew the birds.¬† Without them, Morris’ rose trellis would be somewhat lacking. I hadn’t realised how collaborative these designs were.trellis-wallpaperPleasing details in the museum included these oak drawers – beautiful smooth action, and look at those leather handles.¬† I’m sure William Morris would have liked these.drawers-in-morris-museumAnd I was glad to see the museum had fully exploited the fine patterns at its disposal with Morris prints decorating their very superior toilet facilities.william-morris-patterns-on-toilet-doorsmorris-in-the-toiletThe gardens of Water House are now a public park under the care of that rare species (nowadays) a park keeper.back-of-water-houseWe decided that it was the work experience student who was helping with the planting earlier this year and that is why some beds are surrounded with silvery grey foliage and others are not.something-wrong-with-the-plantingLike the visitor from Peru, I cannot praise this¬†museum too highly – if you are in London, check it out!william-morris-galleryIn complete contrast to the sumptuousness of the V & A and the William Morris Gallery,¬†I paid a visit to¬†the Wellcome Institute to see their Bedlam exhibition.¬† I’ve been there several times before – it’s a most convenient gallery¬†to visit¬†if you have time spare while waiting for a train to leave King’s Cross railway station (just a little further up the Euston Road).¬† There is a fascinating permanent collection of medical curiosities from the past, and some most interesting modelling of modern problems like obesity.

But I was there to see an exhibition on Bedlam, the infamous London mental asylum founded in the 1700s.  Well Рthat was the starting point of the exhibition, but it continued to examine attitudes to mental health in the years up to the present, as well as focussing on art associated with mental health.

The exhibition was very crowded – lots of students making notes busily.¬† By chance I became separated from my friend. People swirling round me as I looked and looked for a familiar face in the crowd.¬† Suddenly, I realised how cleverly the exhibition was structured to give an impression of the helplessness of the inmates of an asylum.¬†A deeply thought-provoking exhibition.bedlam-exhibitionSuch a brief visit – lots of interest, company, catching up with family and dear friends. I have now¬†returned to the big skies of a very autumnal Northumberland …autumn-colours-in-the-gardenStill plenty to do in the garden …homely-choresThe¬†farmer and seagulls are busy too …big-skies-and-harrowingWorking long and late into the night …farmers-working-late-into-the-nightHow incongruously different Northumberland¬†seems from London!

Border Union Show

The Border Union Show is traditionally held on the last weekend of July, at Springwood park, just south of the river Tweed and the Scottish Border town of Kelso.  If you look carefully at the banner picture above this post, you will see Kelso’s historic Abbey looming dramatically over the glitzy showground site.

It’s primarily an agricultural show – a chance for the farmers of the locality to meet, greet and compare. But lots of other bodies join in the fun – and I was there as a member of the Tweed Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers to demonstrate with my little Innerleithen spinning wheel.

I’ve been going to the show as a demonstrator for several years.  We’ve had scorchingly hot years, and a thoroughly miserable wet year (last year – see my 2015 blog post for the Tweed Guild for how we survived the rain), but this year was proper traditional Scottish weather with sunshine and showers.  The plastic covers went on, and the plastic covers went off.  We ran inside with spinning wheels and our knitted displays – and then they all came out again!  It was hard work, and a long, tiring day, – but great fun too.  Not just for me – everybody everywhere seemed to be having a blast.Kelso Abbey watching over fieldThis year we found ourselves in the best of company.  We were sharing a tent with the Dunse flock of rare breed sheep!Rare Breed flockThey are lovely – but at close quarters, in a tent all day – yes, they do pong a bit (especially when their fruity fleeces come inside to avoid the rain).Rare Breed fleeces I did not envy those members of the guild who spent the day based inside the tent. But they put up magnificent displays of felting and basketry, and demonstrated their skills with energy and enthusiasm right through the day.demonstrators inside Tweed Guild tentThere was lots of interest.inside Tweed Guild tentThe Tweed Guild also had an interesting display of some of the different breeds of sheep and their fleeces.different fleece displaysAnd next to it, a beautiful display of natural-dyed materials.  (I’ve been really naughty here and snuck my acid-dyed royal blue Fika shawl into the display ūüė¶ )Tweed Guild displayOutside there was a group of spinners.  This worked very well, as we attracted a lot of interest from passers by.Tweed guild spinners outside tentAnd there were spinning lessons!  Lots of youngsters were fascinated by the spinning wheels. Such a great pleasure to show them exactly what spinning entailed.giving spinning lessonsBut we were only a teeny tiny part of an enormous enterprise occupying 46 acres of parkland. I cannot do justice to it all because I only took short walks around, but let’s make a start with the animals as they were after all the raison d’etre for the show.

As we walked around, an enormous bull lumbered out of the showground.  It looked docile enough, but we were stopped well away to allow it to pass a safe distance from the public.getting the bull over the public pathThe other bulls were waiting inside looking remarkably peaceful and calm.bull waiting area - CopyFurther on, we came to the sheep. I love to see farming folk studying the sheep, leaning into the caging – as they have done since time immemorial (check out this fine Ravilious picture in the Beaford archive).sheep in pensThere were even some Blue-face Leicester sheep – highly prized by spinners!blue-faced leicesterCanny sheep were taking advantage of all the food on offer.sheep feedingIn a nearby tent, there were goats – interesting to see what a lot of young people seemed to be involved with them.goatsNot all animals were flesh and blood.fanciful creaturesI was particularly intrigued by the egg judging in the poultry tent.  For some reason, I had not thought that eggs would be judged – only the birds. Clearly the quality of the yolk is an important part of the judging criteria.  Not Stephen’s favourite spot (he doesn’t like eggs).judging eggsI’ll finish the livestock pics with some of rabbits because Stephen took an enormously large amount of photos of them.  Aren’t these little cuties?!rabbitsIn the main ring, meanwhile, young motorcyclists were entertaining the crowds with terrifying daredevil feats.Daredevil motorcyclistsOh my goodness!oh my goodnessThere’s definitely a macho feel to this place. There are big boys’ toys (photograph kindly contributed by Stephen).boys' toysWe are never allowed to forget that there is serious money behind all of this.  There were more spanking new four-wheel drives on this showground than I have ever seen before in my life.  The big landowners are in evidence – not just in their tweeds and their cavalry twills, but at the stalls.

This is the Roxburghe Estates tent.  Roxburghe Estates are based at the magnificent nearby Floors Castle (home of the Duke of Roxburghe) and from there they run a large and diverse local business empire.Serious land ownersThere are plenty of expensive shops around.expensive shopsThank goodness for cheaper treats that we can all enjoy on a sunny day out.hot enough for ice creamsWhat fascinated me most was the Industrial Section.  Inside were competition entries for jam-making, flower-arranging, children’s pictures, knitted garments, cake baking etc etc.  I’ve never heard it referred to as Industrial before – it’s more what I would have expected to be the province of the local Women’s Institute.jams and jellies behind wireWhat really shocked me about the displays was the wire fence caging them in. To stop passers-by handling the goods, or worse, perhaps to prevent theft?!  Either way it looks dreadful.  Particularly in the case of the children’s competitions.children's art workI’ll be the first to admit that my taste is never the same as the judges.  Here’s a prize-winning floral arrangement.First prize flower arrangingAnd here’s the one I would have chosen – the honeysuckle arrangement on the left.My preferred flower arrangementPerhaps there is a bit of an old-fashioned look to some of the competitions?  Hard to say really because nothing is shown to best effect behind chicken wire…baby wear in the industrial sectionLastly, just time to show you one of my favourite parts of the showground.  Small demonstration beds where they were growing sample plants for fallow ground – linseed, red clover, marigolds and cornflowers etc.  How wonderful it would be to see more of these grown over our landscape!test plantsAll in all: a grand day out ūüôā

Hard lives

Beached up on the north Northumbrian cliffs, we are exposed to all that the weather can throw at us.  Over this winter so far we have endured violently squally and bad-tempered Southerlies bringing rain, rain and more rain. Recently the winds have changed to sea-salty and much colder Easterlies.

But whatever the weather throws at us, we sit tight in our small sandstone cottage, and are good at keeping busy and toasty.seaview cottageMy eye is always drawn out – when the grey allows ( and we’ve had a lot of grey this winter) ¬†– to Holy Island on the horizon, and to wonder how the monks there coped with the wind and the cold and the rain.Sunrising behind cloudsWe know about these monks because some of them were so exceptional, so saintly, that Bede (himself an exceptional early historian) recorded their history. In the early 7th century, ¬†King Oswald of nearby Bamburgh had summoned the monks from Iona to bring Christianity to his kingdom. ¬†It was St Aidan who stablished the monastery, and St Cuthbert was to follow there as bishop.LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMatt

We don’t have Bede’s histories alone to tell us about these early monks. ¬†We have inherited from this place and these early years one of the most remarkable and beautiful illustrated books of all time, the book of the Lindisfarne Gospels, apparently made by the later Bishop of Lindisfarne, Eadfrith, in honour of God and St Cuthbert.

First page of St Matthew’s gospel.  Image made available to the public domain by Wikipedia.

These are the ruins of the monastery church on Holy Island today. ¬†Life in these buildings would have been hard and rough enough, but, in fact, these aren’t the buildings Cuthbert, Aidan and others knew. These are 11th century buildings. The early monks would have had oak buildings thatched with reeds.Holy Island ruins of prioryFrom the security and warmth of our windows, I often look out on Holy Island and wonder about the monks’ lives. ¬†And that manuscript – how on earth could the¬†scribes¬†do this skilled, delicate work in such bitterly cold conditions – no windows, remember?

Hard lives. Hard and dangerous lives.

Extreme danger, in fact, with the earliest known Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793.  Eventually (in 875) the monks fled, taking with them what they valued most: the body of their beloved St Cuthbert.  A life-size wood carving in the church on Holy Island commemorates their journey.  It gives a sense of the struggle to carry the coffin and body, but what of the panic, the fear, the gut-wrenching terror.wood carving of monks carrying Cuthbert's bodyFrom our small cottage we can see the sea and down the coast to Lindisfarne, and when there are large bonfires on Holy Island, we can often see their smoke too.  Farmers here might have seen the approach of those terrifying Viking longships, or the smoke from their destructive fires.view out of garden to seaSkip through the generations to the 13th century, and people here endured a new menace: the Reivers.  The Border lands, the ungovernable country between the separate kingdoms of Scotland and England, experienced years of lawlessness (right up to the Union of the Crowns in 1603) because of the depredations of the Reivers.

Novels have been written and ballads sung of the Reivers, the wild lawless men who grabbed and took whatever they wanted Рespecially if it belonged to another family that they were at odds with.  It was Sir Walter Scott who really put the Reivers on the map.  His Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border established the tales of the Reivers as romantic, glamorous, and exciting.  Actually, they were nasty, cruel and vicious.Minstrelsy of the Scottish BorderThese Border lands were divided into six Marches, and Berwick lay in the English Eastern March.  It was better governed than most.

But it was bad enough.¬† It’s not hard to find examples of defensive architecture.¬† In our adjoining parish of Ancroft, the church itself had a secure tower to offer safety when the Reivers swept in. The walls are 1.35 metres in thickness, the upper windows are tiny.¬† You can climb to the top of the tower, and there are fine views around.¬† It might have been used as a look-out, and it’s possible warning beacons may have been lit from here.¬† This tower is certainly no ecclesiastical adornment.Ancroft churchEven in more recent times, life was miserably hard in these parts. ¬†Coal was mined under the neighbouring fields, and the tramway bearing coals to transport ships runs across our view ( it’s the uneven shrubby line of trees running from the top right of the landscape across to where it meets the modern Eastcoast Mainline running along the coast).old railway trackIn the¬†local churchyard, there are several sad gravestones which tell of deaths at the colliery.¬† One of them is for John Harbottle who was accidentally killed on the 21st November 1865, aged 45 years.¬† We don’t know how he died, but you can read¬†more on these accidents at Scremerston Colliery¬†at¬†the¬†Durham Mining Museum webpage. ¬†No Health and Safety Inspectorate in those times.¬†¬†John Harbottle's grave stoneBut of all the troubles in this part of the world, it¬†was surely the sea that caused most grief.Spittal beach promenadeJust up the coast at St Abbs, these small statues stand as a reminder of the terrible cost of fishing disasters. ¬†These are the wives and children of Charles Purves and James and William Thorburn who lost their lives in the great storm of 1881. ¬†189 fishermen from the east coast of Scotland perished in that storm.St Abbs statuesAnother extremely dangerous (but potentially very lucrative) sea-faring enterprise was whaling.¬† Berwick’s last whaling ship, the Norfolk, left on its last voyage in¬†1836.¬† She sailed over to the North American coast in the spring,¬†but come winter, found¬†herself trapped by ice¬†in¬†Pond Inlet (of Baffin Bay) with several other ships.¬† The Captain of the Norfolk recorded on 15th January 1837: “…The frost is very severe and the ice has been pressing to a great height all around us.”¬† They did not escape the ice¬†until mid-March.¬† Many, many men died of scurvy as well as frostbite.

One Berwick whaling-ship owner proudly announced his trade on his front door.No 1 Wellington TerraceThose are harpoon heads on the front door panels.Detail of door of no 1 Wellington TerraceThese balustrades on the roofs of local Spittal houses are sometimes know as widows’ walks.¬† From them pacing wives and ship-owners might scan the sea, looking for sight of ships.widows' walksThe whale oil was processed in the manufactories where the last Spittal chimney now stands.¬† It was a foul-smelling and obnoxious process.¬†Spittal chimneyIs it surprising that people fled, leaving this beautiful area for places where they hoped they might have a better life?emigration noticeI am left to reflect on my twenty-first century luck to be living here, safe and warm and healthy¬†– so as to be able to enjoy it in comfort.

Oh, alas for all those poor souls who lived in these parts for whom life was such a miserable and dangerous struggle.Poe in front of fire

Compost

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a¬†time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; ¬†A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up …”

The writer of Ecclesiastes put it so well.¬† (Though you may have Pete Seeger’s version, memorably sung by the Byrds in your ears) ¬†For us, in the dark northern hemisphere,¬†it is¬†the breaking down¬†time of the year.¬† The time of decay, death, mouldering and rotting¬†¬† – and so we come to compost.

On of our first chores when we came to Seaview was to build a compost heap.  Stephen had dismantled the ridiculously high fencing so that we could finally see the sea from our house, and we had plenty of spare treated planks of wood.So he built two compost heaps Рone beside the other.  A work of genius!  As we fill one heap up with fresh victuals, the other heap gently matures.  Two states of compostOver the year, all sorts of goodies go into our compost heap.  It could in many ways be said to be a labour of love.

The core goodness is, of course, the green waste from the kitchen.¬† We eat a great deal of fruit and vegetables, and all their parings go in.¬† Eggs and anything meaty don’t – that would encourage rats.

All our garden waste goes into the compost heap – bar the very woody material, which wouldn’t disintegrate quickly enough. ¬†Grass cuttings are an important element.

To this we add treasures lovingly collected on our walks in the neighbourhood.¬† Cowpats from the friendly local cows.Horse manure – when we can get it!¬† This was nicely bagged up by some wonderful folk on Holy Island – free for the taking!¬† How very generous.Horse shit from Holy IslandSeaweed from the beach.¬† We never pick or cut seaweed – but then we don’t have to.¬† If you wait for the right time, there will always be storms to sweep it up onto the beach.Seaweed for collection at the beachSeaweed is a really important addition to the compost heap because of the minerals and sea goodness it adds to the pile.Seaweed on the compost heapSometimes the sea gives other treasures for our compost heap.¬† One winter, after terrible storms, huge piles of beech leaves came down the Tweed.¬† So large were these piles on the beach that they dwarfed Stephen.Huge piles of beech leaves washed down the TweedWe weren’t alone to appreciate these beech gifts – lots of little bugs and insects to feed hungry birds too.Beech leaves washed down the TweedAs we add all these good things to the “operational” compost heap, the other compost heap – the maturing one – is¬†just so good that plants (like these poppies) start to grow.¬† This is an indication¬†of the¬†biggest failing with our compost heap: it never gets warm enough to kill the seeds and weedlings.Poppies growing in the compost heapCome winter, come this time of year, we are at the turning point with our compost heaps.¬† One is very full indeed – Stephen has to jump on it at times to compress all the garden waste that has been piled up after the autumn clearances.This year's compost piled highAnd the other pile is rich, matured – and compressed.Lovely crumbly composted materialIt’s time to spread the goodness round and about.Loading up the wheelbarrow with compostAll sorts of treasures come to light … that’s the blade of the paring knife that went missing last year!¬† And there are worms – a sign of a healthy heap because, of course, it is they who have been eating our composting greenery and¬†vegetables¬†and excreting¬†them as loam.worm and potato peeler in compostTime to spread goodness around.¬† Great mulchy piles around shrubs …Compost nestling round the roots of shrubsAnd I do so love my little borders tidily put to bed like this!Compost spread on flower bedsAs we compost and reuse the goodness from garden, house and locality, we are part of a cycle that others follow too.¬† Last winter the farmer put great piles of cow dung (cleared out from the cattle’s indoor habitation) in the field up the hill from us.¬† By the end of the year there was a sizeable heap.Pile of manure beside fieldAfter harvest, it was loaded up onto tractors …Tractors collecting manureand spread on the fields …Spreading manure all ove fieldSpreading manure over the fieldCompost heaps have been part of my life for as long as I can remember.¬† I can still vividly remember the grass-cutting smell of my grandmother’s heap in her Oxfordshire garden¬†– probably because the heap sat under a large tree which we children liked to climb and hide in.

And my five-year old son Рon his first school trip to the beach at Exmouth Рcoming back with a puzzled teacher and a determined expression on his face as he lugged home some grubby, sandy carrier bags full of seaweed for my compost heap!

We are not the only ones to love the compost heap here at Seaview – our neighbour’s cat is particularly fond of this spot too.Our neighbour's cat likes the compost heap too

No-one sums it all up better for me than the poet, Edna Eglinton:

“What I am now is made from this rich compost, deep-stirred with fellowship and love, sunshine on green pastures, may-trees in blossom, and the heart singing.”

All is safely gathered in

(I was away when they harvested the grain in the fields in front of our house, so guest editor Stephen has kindly written a harvest blog for you – and me! to enjoy.)

It’s harvest time. For many people now this has become an almost mythic time of the year. City dwellers rarely see grain fields except on long car journeys or from train windows as they speed through the countryside. Even though I was brought up in a small industrial town in the midlands and must have passed many fields either ripe with grain or covered in stubble I would rarely, if ever, have seen the actual harvesting of the grain – perhaps only glimpsed on a country excursion.

Birds and harvester

And so for many people harvest was celebrated for one day of the year in church at Harvest Festival, a Sunday when the church would be decorated with flowers, and produce from gardens and allotments would be placed around the altar Рalong with tins and packaged foodstuffs. A rural vicar might cadge a sheaf of wheat from a local farmer; but what my father obtained as a vicar in North London during my teenage years I have no recollection. (Ironically he was responsible for a group of local clergy, and for this he received a special title РRural Dean!)

The harvest services had their special hymns, only sung at this time, which add to the atmosphere and memories of this festival. Come ye thankful people, come (from which the title of this blog comes), Fair waved the golden corn, & We plough the fields and scatter.

But we are incredibly privileged to live in the midst of open fields where we see the whole cycle from planting to harvesting unfold before us.

And there comes that magical day when weather and season rhyme, and the combine arrives.

Harvesting against sea

And most spectacular it is. The combine is assisted by grain lorries which take the grain from the harvester even whilst it continues to reap.

Transfering grain

Time is of the essence here and so they speed away to the farm where the grain is transferred into their silo. Even with a pair of lorries they find it hard to keep up. From there the grain is sold on to grain dealers Рand who knows where it ends up. For the farmer is now at the mercy of the international forces of supply and demand over which he has no control.

Harvester in action

There is a decreasing demand for straw for a variety of reasons – mainly to do with the decrease in the size of the national dairy herd. And so for most of the crops harvested on the local farms the straw is simply chopped inside the harvester, spewed out the back, and left as a mulch on the fields. So far this year we have yet to see bales on any of the harvested fields. Last year the grain was grown right up to our boundary. Up close the combine harvester is an awesome beast.

Bit too close for comfort

Harvesting doesn’t usually start until about midday. This gives a chance for any dew on the grain to dry off – but once started a keen eye is kept on the weather forecast. This year rain was forecast for the next day and so they continued on into dusk . . . .

Twilight harvest

. . . . and beyond. Finally it was all finished at about 11pm, long after it had got dark.

Night harvest

In olden times there would now be a huge celebration Рa feast called Harvest Home. The whole community would turn out to escort the final wagons laden with the stooks of corn back to the farm. Here is a depiction of this in a print from around 1820.

harvest home

And then the feasting would commence – a scene often depicted in costume dramas, and most memorably in John Schlesinger’s film of Hardy’s novel, Far from the Madding Crowd.

Villages and parishes still commemorate this event with a Harvest Supper, though many of those attending will have little if any connection with agriculture. Changes in farming practices and  increased mechanization have meant that the agricultural workforce in the UK  has shrunk dramatically in modern times, from 22% of the workforce in 1841 to less than 1% in 2011.

And the increasing efficiency of modern harvesters means that very little grain goes unharvested. In olden times this was left on the fields for the poor of the parish, who would come and glean what they could – a scene memorably captured in Millais’s painting, ‘The Gleaners’.

Millais Gleaners

And you might like to look at Banksy’s reinterpretation of this painting Click here

Modern harvesters are so efficient that very little is left, and the only gleaners now are the birds who descend on the stubble in large numbers Рpigeons, seagulls, crows, and starlings. Huge flocks of starlings turn up from who knows where, and when frightened all fly up in alarm.

Birds against sea

They seem to swarm about in an extraordinary coordinated way . . . .

Swirling starlings

 . . . . or settle on the nearby power lines. Shades of Alfred Hitchcock!

Bird on a wire

But they don’t have long to feast. Fields are now often planted straight after harvesting with winter wheat which is hardy enough to survive the winter and gives improved yields due its longer growing season. For this the fields need to be prepared.

Fields were normally cleared of stubble by burning, but this practice was banned in 1993 for a variety of reasons. I remember the countryside covered in smoke at this time of year. This year our farmer tried to burn off some large standing clumps of dead grass along a fence line. The fire got out of hand and the stubble started to burn. This picture gives you an impression of how the countryside might have looked at this time:

Stubble burning

So stubble is now either ploughed in or roughly combined with the soil by harrowing. Modern farming practice is for fields not to be ploughed every year as it can break down the soil structure. At this point manure may be spread on the land. Our farmer uses the manure from his herd of Aberdeen Angus beef cattle – and with the wind in the right direction very pungent it is too!

Muck spreading

Here is the field in front of our house being ploughed in September, 2013. The seed was planted a day or two later.

Ploughing

It was a mild Autumn and so the crop got off to good start. Here is the scene one month later – already turning green.

New growth Oct

And finally by early December the fields almost look like a lawn, here with a flock of fieldfares resting during their migration from Scandinavia to Southern Europe.

December field fares

And so the cycle of the farming year rolls on.

And what of the future? Global warming may well result in some other sort of crop being gathered from these fields. Perhaps, a hundred years hence, the occupants of our home will be looking out over rows of vines or groves of olive trees.