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.)

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Our local beach walk

I found myself reflecting the other day how long it is since I wrote on this blog about our walks.  It is not that we have not been out and about, but with the windier and wintrier weather our walks have been concentrated in the locality. I guess I’ve felt a bit dismissive about these, but I’ve now realised how silly this is.  After all, the walks that you do regularly and repetitively right through the seasons, in all weather – those are in fact probably the more fascinating. You see a place through all its changes.

So, let me take you with me on our local Spittal beach walk which we did the other day – and I will show you why we love it so much!

The walk starts with a rough track from our cottage down to the railway line … and the sea …If you are lucky, you will get to see a train …I still find the passing trains enormously exciting … for extra drama you can, of course, stand under the bridge as the train passes …Today I didn’t manage that, which is perhaps just as well because passing under the bridge with the bright blue of the sea calling you is a pleasure in itself …We turn to the left when through the bridge. You can see the old concrete bases of the beach huts ahead.  The beach huts were scrapped long ago, and recently planning permission has been lodged to build modern luxury homes on this land.  It will change the atmosphere of the place but I guess they will be lovely homes for some. For now the gorse is just out, it’s a beautiful day – and the beach is calling …Our route takes us over a small green park.  There are football posts here now but in the old days, there were all sorts of high jinks here … funfairs, paddling pools , together with an elaborate layout of seating and benches … all gone now …In the summer, this area is used for the Spittal Seaside Festival and on a fine summer’s evening it is pleasant indeed to walk down to the pavilions they put up …And partake of a beer or two while listening to the local talent …There’s nothing going on here today … not many people walking along the promenade either.Peering  over the railings (and with tide permitting), you can see some of the interesting rock formations that are to be found on this coastline …But today, we’re going to walk along the promenade for a while and descend to the beach later. This railing was repainted last summer and still looks nice and shiny and blue, in keeping with the blueness of today’s sky and sea …The promenade stretches on right up to the end of the houses (just before that old factory chimney you can see in the centre distance), and then the walk continues on a rougher track right to Spittal point where you face Berwick on the other side of the Tweed river. This beach is much loved by dog walkers …The painter, L.S. Lowry, loved it too, and several of his paintings have been reproduced at relevant points to make connections between the pictures and the landscape.  I so love this little red-capped lady standing in front of the blue railings!In mid-summer the promenade is full of folk having fun at the Spittal Seaside festival … Not a lot of people on the beach though …But then this is the very most northern part of Northumberland and it is not a beach for softies … Here are the stoical good people of Spittal rushing into the sea on Boxing Day!  This is the North Sea remember, and we are almost in Scotland …I have only ever known Stephen paddle here the once (and this was taken mid-summer) …I’m much more confident!Our first winter here we had serious snow. It was stunningly beautiful and we have longed for its return ever since …And oh, how these little dogs are enjoying themselves!Seriously angry wind and waves like this storm in January last year are – thank goodness – a rarity…A white beach – but it’s not snow …But back to the present: half way along the promenade, we walk down to the beach, and on to the sand …It’s just heavenly walking along this large sandy expanse … the weather is perfect today … just a light wind … shingle and shells and seaweed …Up on the promenade, there’s the play park and the amusement arcade (wouldn’t be a proper beach without fun and games and icecream, would it?) ….Down on the sand, there’s lots of interest. If you like collecting things and the weird and the wonderful like me, you’d love it.  There are always interesting things to find … bits of sea-glass, shells, pebbles …Parts of old bottles …Bicycle tyres reconfigured by Mother Nature into interesting beach sculptures …A rattan bench, so conveniently placed for beach viewing …Sometimes interesting graffiti …Sea-foam monsters …And did I tell you that we collect lettered bricks …?Sometimes you find things you would rather not find … (this was in January last year after the very heavy storms washed livestock ….err, dead stock …. down the Tweed on to Spittal beach) …Today Stephen’s found me some treasures …Three golf balls!And a lovely bit of china … (with writing on, always the best) …We’ve had stormy weather recently, and that’s reflected in the state of the beach today.  There’s lots of seaweed and leaves that have been swept down the river Tweed …As we approach the Point, we pass the old groins, half buried in this leafy seaweed mess.  There on the bank you can see the last of the old Spittal factory chimneys.  This area was once full of factories making chemicals and fertiliser.  It is reputed to have smelt very bad, greatly to the displeasure of the boarding-house ladies in the posher parts of Spittal …From a distance these piles appear to be all organic matter – leaves and seaweed and branches – but sadly that’s not the case.  There is disgusting very human rubbish amid the natural waste …And there is a horribly large amount of plastic bottles.  Sometimes I’m organised enough to bring bags for rubbish but I hadn’t expected it to be so bad today.Actually, it isn’t the worst that we’ve ever seen the beach.  One December, after serious storms, the piles on the beach were so large they almost came up to Stephen’s shoulder.Of course, these sea-gifts have their advantages …  this is fodder from the sea for our compost heap …The birds too love these leafy treasures which bring fine dining …Spittal Point at the end of the beach is where the sea meets the river Tweed …On the other side of the Tweed river is the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed with its fine Elizabethan fortifications … (here caught in a magically wintry sun-setting moment) …And there are the pier and the lighthouse. At times it can appear to be a tiny waterway over to the pier, but it is not …Very large boats like the Marinda here go up the Tweed to Tweedmouth harbour …Just as in Lowry’s day … (sadly this other sign in the Lowry trail on Spittal beach has been horribly defaced by the elements) …The channel is so tricky to navigate that large boats must use the local pilot.  Here is the pilot boat edgily leading the way …There is the Marinda turning and straightening into port. It’s always dramatic when a big boat arrives, but these fishermen don’t look that bothered …The Spit – as we call this land where the sea meets the river – is endlessly fascinating.  It is a land of shape-shifting, of soft sands and the intriguing patterns of nature. Sometimes there are islands …Sometimes there are ridges and mounds and small pools …Patterns and new colours …An ethereal world when caught in the mist …You never know what colours you may find here …Occasionally we walk down here at night … it is truly magical to watch the sun set behind Berwick  and the Tweed …Today we turn back from the Tweed to the Spittal chimney and a mirrored sun …It is here that we see our favourite beach birds, the sanderlings. They are winter visitors from the high Arctic. You can read more about these so-called Keystone Cops of the British seaside in an earlier blogpost of mine Time now to turn back.  Sometimes the beach is so perfect that we cannot resist retracing our steps along the beach and up to home on the hill … On other occasions we’ll walk back along the promenade. It has been known to be as sandy as this after the winter storms …They have to call out the diggers before the season starts to clean it all up …Today we’re walking back through Spittal. This is Spittal’s industrial quarter and has a fascination of its own. First we go through the scruffy lands where you can see the last remaining Spittal chimney in its native habitat …On the other side of the road are the old fish-gutting sheds, now part of Berwick Sailing Club.  In the old days, these large wooden shutters were drawn back to the walls on either side, and buckets of freshly caught fish delivered for processing …Not far away is the old salmon fishing shiel.  Here fishermen would pass the time, eating and sleeping, while waiting for the right tides for their salmon nets …We turn down into Spittal’s Main Street.  It is handsome and well-cared for – and unusually wide for a village street. This is because once an old railway track ran through the middle of the street, bringing building stone and coal to the river from where it could be transported down the coast …There is a handsome Victorian school …And church …The houses at this end of Spittal are solidly-built of the local stone. Many of these were boarding houses where visitors from the nearby Scottish Borders stayed for seaside holidays … But the old signs hint at an older history to this place.  Surely with a name such as Cow Road at some time people drove their cattle down this lane …?We are now climbing the hill … and we are looking down on the lighthouse and pier … and Spittal chimney … and the funfair … and Spittal’s Main street … and all those nicely roofed houses …Where earlier in our walk we walked under the railway line, here we cross it …The railway crossing manager is to be found in a little hut to the side, and should you wish to drive over the line, you must seek permission …If you’re just walking over, you can just go – but, of course, you take your life in your hands …This pic really doesn’t convey how scarily fast these trains can move … !Now we’re walking parallel to the railway line … still on the lookout for trains … and looking back at the lighthouse and beach …With just our muddy rutted track ahead … This is our private lane, shared with our neighbours, and lovingly repaired by us ….Over the brow of the hill …And a pause to enjoy it all … before we head home for tea.

All change

I’ve been both a town and a country mouse. One thing that stands out for me as I revert to country mouse status is how oblivious I’ve been to natural change when living in towns and cities.

It’s been partly due to my occupations in these places, of course, that I have noticed things so differently.  When rushing to work in town or city, you may indeed notice the seasons change, but the micro changes so often pass you by.

Everything at Seaview conspires to remind us that the old Greek adage from Heraclitus πάντα ῥεῖ (everything flows) is true. Life here is constant flux.

The sun and the moon show this as well as anything.  These photographs of a wintry sunrise on the solstice last year (December 21st) were all taken in the matter of minutes as the sun rose to the west of  Bamburgh Castle. First a tiny hint that something was coming …sunrise-1-on-the-solstice-21-12-15Then a bit more …sunrise-2-on-the-solstice-21-12-15And as the sun continues to rise, it appears to swivel to the right …sunrise-3-on-the-solstice-21-12-15Now you can see clearly the orb approaching …sunrise-4-on-the-solstice-21-12-15Likewise the moon, here captured on the night of the Supermoon last month, (14th November) …supermoon-14-11-2016Through the early evening, the moon moved rapidly across the sky, in and out of the clouds.  But there were other changes afoot too – man-made changes.  In the blink of an eye, a train slipped across our line of sight, travelling down the mainline East Coast railway line …supermoon-14-11-2016-with-trainCloud banks constantlychange, sweeping across the huge Northumbrian skies in a fascinating variety of patterns …cloud-formationsRainbows shimmer for a moment (here over Holy Island) – and then pass on …rainbow-on-holy-islandSometimes the moment appears to linger. This foggy sunrise last winter seemed trapped in a cold still world …washing-line-in-the-misty-sunBut the lingering is always an illusion, usually fostered by the light on cold days, as captured in this picture of Berwick, golden in the setting sun …winter-sun-on-berwickYou’ve got to be quick to catch the birds sweeping through our skylines too.  Starlings over the neighbouring houses …cloud-of-starlings-copyCrowds of seagulls following the plough …seagulls-following-the-ploughOr this solitary bird caught in a recent sunrise …bird-at-dawnUnremarkable hungry black birds, looking extraordinary in black and white …wintry-birdsAnd our very favourites, the little sanderlings (who only visit this area in the winter), running in and out of the waterline on the Tweed …sanderlings-on-the-shoreJust occasionally we manage to capture the boats coming into the Tweed – not often.  Entry is difficult, limited by the tides, and so dodgy (because the channel is very narrow) that only the local pilots are allowed to navigate these boats to the Tweed Dock. Magical to see them rushing past Berwick’s old lighthouse …marinda-entering-the-tweedTides – ah, yes, tides. Nothing, of course, demonstrates the inevitability and variety of natural change like the tides.

“Twice daily the tides are here, sometimes 
breenging shoreward like an army
of small, mad, angry locals,
at others, creeping in on tourist feet.
They are their own beginnings & endings …”

from At Douglas Hall by Stuart  A Patterson (a Borders poet) 

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to record these changes by photographing the Tweed Estuary from our lane throughout the day.  In all these pictures, you should be able to make out the wide panorama, stretching from Berwick’s old lighthouse on the far right to Berwick’s Royal Border Bridge on the left of the picture. These pictures start at 9.21 am with very low tide, and the sands of Spittal Point stretching out almost down to the lighthouse …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-9-21-amAn hour later (10.22 am), the sun has come out, there’s a van coming down the lane, and the sands of Spittal Point are succumbing to the incoming tide …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-10-22-amBy 11.26 am, the sky is really blue, there are some gorgeous light clouds mirroring the line of the pier, and only a few islands of sand are still uncovered by the tide …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-11-26-am12.20, and the sky is far less exciting, the sun has gone in, there are still a few very small islands of sand in the Tweed – and there’s a train running up the East Coast mainline, Berwick bound, I think …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-12-20-am13.17, and rather a dull picture of high tide and no sun …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-13-17-pmAn hour later (14.20 pm), and shafts of low wintry sun are running over the picture from the left (the west) as another train is captured on the Eastcoast railway line.  It is very high tide …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-14-20-pmBy 15.17 pm the light is beginning to go, but an odd flash of blue sky is revealed in the dying light.  The tide is on the turn …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-15-17-pmAnd the last picture of daylight, taken at 16.15 pm, the sky and sea are delicately rose-pink from the rays of the setting sun in the west.  The tide is still only a very little way out …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-16-15-pmHow uplifting – in a year when the world has seen such radical and disturbing global changes – are these ephemeral sudden shafts of light …

 

Trains

The main Eastcoast railway line snakes across our view.  It is just magical.train heading across landscapeBut one funny thing I have noticed is that, although we may complain about the blight of windfarms and tower blocks and pylons etc across our views, nobody ever complains about the electrical train gantries bestriding our landscape.  Just look.  Man-made ugliness, or what?railway line in the viewSo much do we love our trains, that we forgive them almost everything.

Before I came to Seaview, I could take trains or leave them.  They weren’t that important to me – just the practical tools of transport.  But now, I have lived at intimate quarters with trains, I have become – dare I say it – train-obsessed.

The thing is, trains seem to be all around us here.  They rush past as we walk down to the sea.walking down the hill to the beachOur local walks take us right along the main East coast railway line.walking beside the trackAny moment, and a train will come rushing past.train suddenly appearsThere are several level crossings that we have to negotiate over the mainline.trains rushing past level crossingAnd there are the extra special two days of the year, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, when no trains run, so the gates are pinned back, and you can stand in the middle of the line and be silly.no trains at ChristmasThe railway line as we know it was built by the Newcastle and Berwick Railway and reached the southern bank of the Tweed in March 1847.  Earlier tramways along this track had existed for the transport of stone and later coal (as shown in the map below) to the River Tweed.1844 Spittal & Tweedmouth Tramroad plan1844 plan for the Spittal & Tweedmouth Tramroad or Railway (courtesy of the Woodhorn Northumberland Archives)

It must have been an enormous engineering enterprise.  Awkward chasms had to be bridged, and at times deep gullies were excavated to level out the line along the coast.  Look at the depths this part of the track (just south of our house)  has been cut to!depths of cuttingThe culmination of this part of the line is the nearby Royal Border Bridge where the train crosses into Berwick and can then travel on to Scotland.  One of the bestest best sights in the locality: a steam train crossing Robert Stephenson’s magnificent 1850 bridge.train crossing Royal Border BridgeOnce we started to look at the trains, we began to notice the different ones that came and went … on the road (or should that be track?) to becoming happily geeky.

There are a lot of goods trains on the line …Goods trainsThere are maintenance trains (glimpsed at Berwick station) …Mobile maintenance trainSometimes there are old-fashioned trains taking a special tour …old fashioned trainOn a very special few occasions there are steam trains!oh the joy of the steam trainThe steam trains always draw an admiring crowd. (Yes, that’s a crowd for this part of the world!)watchers of steam trainThere’s something else about trains – a romance, an emotion, something beyond the fascination with the mechanical and the technical.  Our friends and our family – and we ourselves – travel on them frequently as we come and go from this place, and they are wrapt up for me with the sadness of parting, and the excitement of arrival.

Here I am at Berwick station one sunny autumn day, waiting for a train to arrive from London, bringing a dear visitor.  From the end of the station, you can see over the Royal Border Bridge …. and there’s the first glimpse of the train approaching …waiting for train at Berwick station1Clearly visible now …waiting for train at Berwick station2So exciting – nearly there!waiting for train at Berwick station3Conversely, there are departures.  We always go down the hill to wave goodbye.  On one visit to London, I managed to capture Stephen waving to me as the train gathered speed.Stephen waving (photo taken in train)My children came to visit last weekend for my birthday, and now you have to imagine me, standing in the gloaming where Stephen was in the photo above, waving goodbye to the train carrying them back to London.saying goodbyeBon voyage!