Storm Surge. 5th December 2013.

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I know my little bit of the North Sea, Filey Bay, very well. I live a few hundred yards away from its edge. I have spent time beside it with my dogs for about eight hours a week during the last fifteen years or so and known it for a lot longer than that. It is always changing, always surprising, never ordinary, but I rarely think of it as dangerous. Those who go out on the North Sea know and respect it but for most of the time those of us who only walk beside it are blind to its power. There are plenty of days where it laps gently and in the summer small children toddle in it happily. There are even a few days each year when it could almost be a lake, turning over gently at its edges. A rough sea is not one which is dangerous, just something to marvel at. Only rarely do we get to see and feel its real power, the kind of power which can smash down walls, kill and destroy. This happens when a storm, accompanied by gale force North Westerly winds acts on a high tide to form a tidal surge, a rush of water which sweeps in towards the land with enormous force. The most terrible of these was the tidal surge on 31st January and 1st February 1953 which caused floods along the East coast of the UK and in the Netherlands, with damage extending into Belgium and Germany. Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes and an estimated 1836 people lost their lives in the Netherlands alone. It was the worst natural disaster in Europe in modern times. It doesn’t get talked about much in England but I was part of a Norfolk theatre project about it, back in the 1980’s, so it has always been at the forefront of my mind. Last night, as the light of a winter day began to fade, I was given a sharp reminder as, sixty years later, I watched the same conditions come together to produce a smaller but still potentially lethal storm surge. It was both exhilarating and humbling to see my familiar stretch of beach being ripped into as waves tore into the cliffs and toppled the sea defences next to the sea wall. The wall itself stood firm. It was built in 1893/4 by Victorians who knew a thing or two about large scale engineering projects and didn’t skimp.

Storm Surge.

Last night the sea was playing rough,
piercing the soft side of the cliff,
gouging holes in their fragile confidence
and replacing it with foaming water.

Last night the sea was chucking giant boulders
down from their battle stations,
spraying them with contempt
and leaving them for dead.

Last night the sea was lashing the slipway
with tongues of spluttering, icy water,
claiming its right to ownership of its land
by shooting volleys of spray up into a dark sky.

Last night the sea was making rounded balls of clay,
decorating them with pebbles
and rolling them out across the seabed
just for the fun of it.

This morning the sea is sparkling under a blue sky
pretending nothing has happened,
but out in the distance the horses of the storm
are rearing their defiance.

They will be back.

Blackberry Picking. A mast year!

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I grew up in a house with a very large garden run by my grandparents, a retired farming couple, so I was well used to talk of good and bad growing years and planting, watering, weeding, picking and storing was part of the rhythm of everyday life but this year has taught me a new word. This year, 2013, is a mast year, a year in which trees and shrubs produce an abundance of fruit and seed allowing the wild creatures who feed on them to feed, store and thrive. It isn’t certain exactly why this happens, it can be part of the natural growth cycle of a tree, but it is also thought to be linked to a warm dry summer which follows a poor, damp summer in the previous year with a lot of growth and little fruit and this is exactly what we have just experienced. Everything is ready to shoot forth when it gets the chance and during a mast year small mammals like rats, stoats, shrews, squirrels and weasels will all enjoy the benefit of this and raise more young. They are not the only ones.

This September the dogs and I are already taking advantage of a bumper crop of blackberries each day on our cliff top walk and picking blackberries to make into tarts, pies, crumbles and jam, and there are many more to come. When they are large, plentiful and juicy this takes little time and we have been picking from bushes that I never picked from before even though I have been walking past them every autumn for years. The biggest blackberry bushes, the ones I go to every year, are nowhere near ripe yet. Sadly the blackberries that the dogs pick never quite reach the bag but they know how to find the ripe ones and get their lips around them for a fresh treat. It is a great way to notice the tiny scraps of insect life that are all around us and as mast years are also good for butterflies we have had plenty of colourful company.

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These days picking blackberries seems strange behaviour to some people who see me along the track. I have been told that it isn’t worth getting scratched to bits, giggled at, and been informed more times than I can remember now that I am “picking blackberries” as though it is a strange aberration that I ought to get over. That would never have happened when I was young. Picking brambles ( they would never have been called blackberries back then) was something everyday, something ordinary. It was a common sense way of getting some free fruit just as the red garden fruit was starting to run out. Lots of jam was made every year- enough to get us through the winter- and it was fun. Picking soft fruit was always my favourite job at home, it was a chance to get out of the house and get messy without being in trouble for it and picking brambles was the most fun of all because I had to leave the garden to get them and sometimes I was allowed out on my own to do it. So long as I watched out for creepy crawlies, kept the fruit dry and didn’t squash it in my fingers as I picked it the grown ups at home would be pleased with me. Keeping it dry was important as we didn’t have a fridge, just a larder cupboard with a metal mesh window that allowed cool air in. Damp, squashy brambles would go mouldy “as soon as you would look at them” and be wasted and sometimes if you tipped the fruit into a bowl and left it on the side when you came back half an hour later strange things would have crawled out.

Seasonal activities which don’t change are a good way to rekindle memories and maintain a connection with your younger self. Picking blackberries reminds me who I was and it shows me who I am now as I spend time away from life hidden away amongst the undergrowth. Simple repetitive activities give me time to think, or just be, and I have the pleasure of bringing home something delicious which has cost me nothing but a few scratches.

I will never be embarrassed to get out there and pick blackberries, how could I be after the upbringing that I had? Buying them in a supermarket for two pounds a small punnet, now THAT’S embarrassing!

I thought about writing a poem about blackberry picking but if ever a subject for a poem has been done to perfection it’s this..……..

Fragile Flowers.

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Red Campion.

When I was growing up, back in the sixties and seventies, I can remember my mum regretting the fact that there were not as many wild flowers in the hedges and verges as there had been when she was a girl. This was not just nostalgia adding a rosy glow to her memories, it was simple fact. My mum was born in the 1930’s and grew up in the days before pesticides were in common use.

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Lady’s Bedstraw.

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Meadowsweet.

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Common Spotted Orchid.

July is the main flowering month for many of the wild flowers that grow on the cliff top just south of Filey where I walk my dogs. It is an environment that has remained more or less unspoiled and I know it well, so well that I can point out in winter where the patches of the less common wild flowers will be. In those cold days I hurry along, trying to avoid the mud, with my head down against the wind but on a warm July morning with a cooling breeze and a blue sky it becomes a place to linger. It is a place to stop, think and relish the simple beauty of plants like Lady’s Bedstraw, Red Campion, Bird’s Eye Trefoil, Tufted Vetch, Ragwort and Doves Foot Cranesbill as they wind their flowers through the grasses and bushes and cling to life for another season. Even the names are strange and magical and very few of the people who walk along the path on a summer visit would be able to tell you what all of them are. These are plants that grow abundantly all over the country but many of them manage to remain anonymous. Few of these flowers are flashy attention seekers in the way that cultivated garden flowers are. They are not the carefully cultivated and pampered garden supermodels of the plant world bred to impress. These are quiet, gentle, unassuming beauties who are easily trodden on and pushed aside and quick to wilt. They have to work for a living, whether they are a Tufted Vetch twisting its tiny tendrils around the grass stalks to reach the light and forming a drift of deep purple, a patch of bright yellow Yarrow digging its roots into the crumbling infertile soil of the cliff side, or a purple Cornflower fighting the wind as it trembles on its fragile stalk.

I have watched the cliff top on the other side of the bay become hard and lifeless from too many feet in the years since the cliff top car park was made and it became too easy for people to wander along it and look at the Brigg. Nothing can ever be taken for granted when it comes to protecting nature but the buffer zone of Filey golf club and the less obvious nature of my part of the cliff for people wanting a short walk have looked after it so far. Long may that continue. All that the flowers ask is that they be left in peace. They will do the hard work for themselves.

The Return of the Burnet Moths.

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One of the pleasures of walking the same route along the cliff top almost every day for many years now is the way that I am able to notice the seasons and the changes around me as each year unfolds. The memories and resonances which this brings go with me on my walks and enrich my daily routine. This is true not just on a large scale, the leaf fall, the spring tides, the may blossom and the summer visitors but also on a much smaller scale. The pattern of dry roots in the path where it threads through some low bushes which will fill up with mud in the winter, the fresh cow parsley which will soar up to replace the dry winter skeletons of last years plants, the way that the leaves will turn and show their soft pale undersides to the wind as they are blown back towards the sea and the change in the light on a winter afternoon as the sun dips down and illuminates the dried grasses poking their heads up through the fresh snow. This simple knowledge, knowledge which only long observation can bring, makes the landscape into a home and the observer becomes a part of the stream of life within a single place. Many people would have been familiar with this feeling of belonging in past generations as they worked the land and stayed where they were born but life has changed and it is a rare gift today.

There are two changes which give me more pleasure than anything else, the return of the swallows, suddenly there swooping low and feeding up after their long flight and the hatching of the Burnet moths in early July. This (2013) looks like being a good year for them after a decline caused by a very hard winter a few years ago. As soon as July came I was ready to keep an anxious lookout and I didn’t have long to wait. In the cool grey early morning of July 1st there were three and now, just a few days later, a run of good weather has brought the wild flowers into bloom and brought dozens them out of their cocooons to spread their wings in the sunshine and sip nectar. They are everywhere, their tiny red and black wings blurred as they spin from flower to flower, thistles, dandelions, orchids, wild roses, are all settled on and investigated anxiously as their tiny legs cling on to the swaying plant in the breeze. Once a firm foothold is gained they unroll their proboscis and drink quietly while their open wings and abdomen move gently up and down. When they are doing that you can get as close as you like. Their whole being is focussed on feeding and they notice nothing else. Several of them can be on one plant, each lost in their own sweet world of satisfaction and exploration. Nothing else up there is red and black, they bring their own contrasting notes of vibrant colour for all too short a time to complete the picture of of life on the cliff top. It’s as if a master painter had wandered along the path adding the final touches which bring a work of art to life. When they are gone I shall miss them, but as I walk the path next winter I shall take pleasure in the fact that somewhere, hidden from sight, their descendants are waiting.

A portrait of my beach.

My home.

For the last fifteen years or so I have been lucky enough to spend a lot of time each week walking on Filey beach with my dogs and observing the most beautiful bay in England in all weathers and all seasons. I always carry my camera and these shots are some of the results.

Grace, drama and wild beauty. Watching gannets feed in Filey Bay.

I have just spent an exciting hour out on the cliff top in a howling gale (the last gasp of hurricane Katia) watching a flock of gannets feed out at sea. There is a particular point which juts out where the slope of the cliff face is quite gentle and I can sit on the edge safely with my legs stretched in front of me resting on the overhanging soft turf. There is nothing but air between me and the vista of the bay and it feels like I am flying. This afternoon the noise of the wind in my ears and the angry air swirling around me gave an illusion of danger, as though I might be carried out to sea on the wind at any moment. The turbulence in the water must have brought in a shoal of herring sile close to the beach as the gannets don’t often come in that close to feed. Usually they feed round the back of the Brigg or out at sea. They were a magnificent sight as they whirled around, their black and white wings catching the sun, balancing and floating on the wind. They are large birds, weighing between 2.3 and 3.6 kilos yet they seemed weightless. Quite suddenly one after another would freeze in flight, fold in their wings, and drop like a bullet into the water from 30 metres up, hitting the surface of the water at a speed of 100km/h with a neat splash that an Olympic high diver would envy. All the force and energy of their flight was redirected downwards into the centre of the shoal as they plummeted into the flashing silver mass of tiny fish. It was a display of deadly grace, focussed and exact.

Image by David Tipling. (davidtipling.com)

It was hard for me not to project a feeling of exuberance and joy onto their actions as I watched but of course they were diving for survival, not for pleasure or show. Their skill in the air was perfect because it had to be. After each dive I knew that a small fish was swimming for its life under the water, trying desperately to put itself out of reach, caught in the perfect binocular vision of a merciless predator and in the direct line of a beak shaped like a rapier. The small fish would be eaten by the gannet in one swift efficient movement which would lead their attacker back up to the surface of the water ready to rise up again on the wind.

Over and over again the gannets plummeted down before surfacing again as I watched, using their wings to lift themselves back up into the air. It was almost like a kind of group dance which seemed to defy the wind, a dance in which they used the wild air to their own advantage, graceful, dramatic and repetitive. A dance of death.

Apologies for the poor quality of my photo. I have included it because it is real and those are the gannets  that I watched- even if it isn’t very good.  David Tipling’s shot of a gannet plunge diving in the Shetlands is rather better. That’s why he is an acclaimed wildlife photographer and I am not.

Death on the Beach. January 2010.

This month the beach was covered with dead fish, large silver grey fish the size of dinner plates with tiny rows of dramatic teeth snarling out. Slowly, as the seagulls pecked out their eyes and time decayed the silver from the surface of their scales, they began to melt into the beach and lose their identity among the flotsam and the rubbish. Seaweed wound itself round their bodies and the tide slapped at them twice a day, lifting them up and throwing them down into new distortions of what they once were. A few were picked up by fishermen and marvelled about while they were still sleek, silver and bright eyed but most of them were left alone to stare out with empty eyes, only remarked on quietly by people as they passed. They wondered about them, complained about them, and finally forgot their idle curiosity as they went home, simply remarking that the beach was a mess. In time the waves grew weary of toying with them. The sea claimed their bodies back for itself when an early morning tide swept what was left of them back into deep water and uncovered a clear sunlit stretch of smooth sand, a fresh wind and a new beginning.

The fish were Rays Bream. They swim in shoals down on the south west coast where the water is warmed by the gulf stream. A big storm had pushed them along the English Channel and they had swum north, up the east coast into colder water. Uncomfortable and disorientated by the cold they had headed towards the warmer shallower water at the edge of the sea. Because of their large flat bodies they then found that they didn’t have enough depth to swim upright as they needed to and they were washed ashore by the wave action of a rough sea and grounded, alive and gasping.

It’s a harsh world out there for some of our fellow creatures.