Summer views

I am constantly drawn to the view here. It is like a drug, a fix, a yearning, a longing.  Wherever I’m at home, I find myself coming back to the windows and looking out.This summer – perhaps because of the less-than-perfect weather we’ve had? – I have been particularly fascinated by the interplays of light and shade on land and sea …The colour changes, sometimes in the sky …But also over the land …And of course  over the sea …Almost all of these photographs were taken from our bedroom window, looking south-east over the fields of north Northumberland to the North Sea.  You may be able to make out the gantreys of the main eastcoast railway line and beyond them the castles of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and Bamburgh in the very distance …. oh, and that’s our always-wonky washing line, keen to be part of the view too …Let me a bit more orderly, and look back through the months to the green fields of June.  Here’s a classic early June day and it’s all green and white and blue …Some days are cloudy, but they have a different sort of fascination …Nights too have colour shifts and amazing tones  ….This photograph was taken about the summer solstice, when the nights are long and light and full of promise.  9.30 in the evening – the one above of the moon taken at 10.42 pm.But then we’re in July – the summer galloping away;  a classic British summer day with the clouds scudding about …July 3rd I was up very early indeed for me – 5.35 am. It was worth it to see this beauty of a day starting – and oh, those long shadows on the green! Sunrise (to the far left of the picture) was almost exactly an hour earlier. A couple of days later (July 6th) illustrates so well the quick changes in this place …This photo was taken 3 minutes later than the one above, at 9.26 pm. I found this so extraordinary that I had to check it out – but it’s true, the camera and the very helpful EXIF data recorded with each image don’t lie.The next day (July 7th), at roughly the same time of the evening, the light from the setting sun is far more intense. It creeps through holes in the fence to highlight the odd old coping stone. My July 8th photograph captures an almost full moon a couple of minutes after sunset.  The colours are muted, but magical in their own way – especially that faint pink hovering over the horizon …You can see in this day time pic of July 11 that the field colours are still green, but I think they’re just edging to that acid-green that heralds the change to harvest gold …July 15th – and a run of fascinating evening photos, starting at 7.33 pm. It looks interesting in the sky, but not particularly dramatic …Followed by some sharper light at 9.04 pm …9.17 pm … it definitely dramatic! – and yes, that’s a rainbow creeping in on the right!9.32 pm … calming down a bit …Lastly – 10.18 pm …. things are beginning to settle down for the night …The next day – a sparkling day at 10.27 am …And something very unusual happening amid these intense evening colours at 8.02 pm.  There’s a rookery in the group of trees on the horizon – and something has set the crows off –  I wonder what on earth it is?The evening of the 17th of July – cloudless, but oh that gentle pink haze on the horizon …By complete contrast, July 22nd is misty and mysterious!July 24th is in many ways unremarkable – but it’s still misty (you can’t make out Holy Island) and look at those angry white waves crashing on the coast!We’re drawing on to the end of July with this picture of the 27th. It was actually taken at 9.26 in the morning, but is so dark that it could well be later in the day – until you look at those extraordinary light patches on the sea and on the horizon … Now we’re into August – and if you’re still with me, you’ve certainly got staying power!  I have to warn you that there are more pictures of August views than any of the other months put together.  Why?  Well, I think it has to do with the colour change.  The growing gold of the fields, and the interplay of the light on and around them is just irresistible …

This picture of August 2nd is my earliest picture of the day.  It was taken at 4.25 am. Sunrise followed in nearly an hour (at 5.17), but the light is already twitching over the sea …I was up a little later on August 5th.  You can see so clearly the way the sunlight is streaming in from the left of the picture. This was taken at 6.37 am (sunrise at 5.23, nearly an hour earlier).  And you can see what I mean about those golden fields, can’t you?This photo below – one of the most dramatic in the whole set, I think – was taken in late afternoon – 5.09 pm … it’s raining heavily over the sea …. and it looks as though the pot of gold at the foot of that rainbow is on the beach just below us …But by 8.50 pm, everything’s calmed down, and there is just this intense pink glow behind the farm on the horizon ….9.05 pm – and the pink has moved over the sea …9.21 pm …cloudy ….21.43 pm … a clear moonlit night …Angry skies on the night of August 6th – the first photo taken just before 9pm and the second a few minutes after …By contrast the evening of August 8th (at almost the same time of day) was magical.  Sunset is to the right of this picture, but here the sun’s rays are catching the light clouds in such soft pinky golden tones …August 9th was a special day here because it’s the day the combine harvester arrived to start work on the fields around us.We both get excited when this happens … vying with each other to get the better picture ….Clouding over a bit as the tractor arrives ….This is dawn on August 11th – 4.58 am.  Well, it’s actually pre-dawn (often the time for the best sunrises) at 5.34 am …Sunrises (this at 5.22 am) speak for themselves.  As the earth tilts on its journey from the summer solstice to the autumn equinox, sunrise appears at more and more southerly points of the horizon.  So this is a view we would never see in May or June – but it is full of promise for us as we progress into winter, because then the sunrise will appear clearly on our southern horizons.  Check it out here in my very first ever blogpost!August 20th is overcast and dramatic (but it’s 5.34 pm) and the combine harvester is in our field! It arrives in a great dust cloud of chaff and the greedy young house martens swirling around.  The bugs stirred up by this great monster provide the most fantastic feast for the birds.  They are about to set out on their migration travels and need to bank up their bodily food stores.So dark the tractor’s actually got its lights on!It’s a very exciting moment as the combine harvester powers past right in front of the house …As they come to the end of their work for the day, a golden cast falls over the field from the setting sun, but the lowering grey clouds are deeper and darker …The next day it’s an odd feeling to wake up to the partially shorn field … and in sympathy (as it were) there is this curious light over the sea …Unusually the harvester left the field unfinished for several days. However the balers moved in and dealt with the part of the field that had been cropped.  One bale, right outside our house, split. It remains – a strange marker under this misty sky …But the next day (the 23rd) they started ploughing the lower field – look how red that soil is! a whole new colour added to the palette …He’s back finishing off the ploughing the next day.  This is one of my favourite pictures of this summer – I both love the silhouette of the tractor against the sea, and the scudding blue/grey skies.  And I also love the astonishing gleam on that freshly-ploughed earth!Time to feature the clouds alone.  Everything else is low key – the light is elsewhere, but the clouds know this is their turn to shine …A slight variant of our view here because this photograph, taken earlyish in the morning (at 8.22 am) shows the flowers in our garden, standing proud with the sea behind.And that’s it folks. The last day of August, and the farmer and his men are sorting out the broken drains in the field before they plough (which, as I write on September 4th, they still haven’t done).   That’s a little strange, but not unpleasant as this lingering gold with that fast-changing sky is very beautiful indeed.If I were to meet that wish-granting Genie of the bottle, I would wish to be a painter …

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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 – along 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 – Rural 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 – and 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 – a 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 – pigeons, 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.