Henrietta and her urchins

We couldn’t believe there was a hedgehog in our garden. It was mid-morning on a Sunday towards the end of May and a portly looking hedgehog was scurrying around collecting mouthfuls of dry leaves then disappearing under the shed. We watched her for a couple of hours, realising she was a pregnant female making a nest.

She appeared again later in the day gathering more nesting material. Then we saw nothing of her for a couple of days. We put out a large shallow dish of fresh water and bought meal worms and hedgehog food which we put behind a paving slab we had propped against the side of the shed. The food disappeared so we replenished it each evening.

Then Henrietta, as we called her, started appearing regularly at dusk. She would have a long drink, eat some food then trot off around the garden. One evening I saw her heading down the road towards the recreation ground. This was a bit worrying, but it is a quiet village road so I hoped she would be ok.

A couple of weeks went by before we started seeing the urchins, or young hedgehogs. They were almost round with little pointy snouts and would drink together from the dish. We think there were three, but were never sure if we had seen all of them at one time. Soon the food started disappearing very fast and we had to stock up on meal worms, their favourite food.

Now, as it gets dark, around 10pm, the two-month-old urchins come out from under the shed and, after a feed and a drink, they run back and forth, disappearing among the herbs. They even found a lost tennis ball in the flower bed and pushed it out on to the path. Our neighbours have cut openings in their back gates to allow access for foraging hedgehogs.

However, we haven’t seen Henrietta now for about ten days. I’m hoping it’s just that she’s weaned her young and has left them to be self-sufficient, but yesterday as I turned off the main road to the village I saw a grey smudge, a sketchy outline, unmistakably hedgehog, lying flat as a child’s discarded drawing on the slip road.

I walked back to look more closely and felt inexpressibly sad that this could be Henrietta, now just a matted grey shape of crushed prickles, the snout upturned cartoon-like.

We are continuing to feed our two remaining hedgehogs and have installed a hedgehog house ready for hibernation time. We still hope that perhaps Henrietta may still be alive and will come back one day to have another litter.

Poem a Week

Last January I decided I would write a poem a week throughout 2016. This is why I haven’t produced a blog for a while, so I apologise to my followers for my year’s absence. I have always written poetry, but since finishing my MA at Bath Spa in 2001, my forays into poetry have been sporadic. In 2015 I wrote a lot of poems about the South Dorset Ridgeway and collected them into a book called Sea Wall which I illustrated with my own lino-prints. So, in 2016 I decided the time had come to apply myself on a regular basis to see what came out of it. A friend joined me in the challenge and we met weekly to read and discuss our poems.

Sometimes the poems came easily, but other weeks I had to struggle to produce something, but I very much enjoyed the challenge of digging deep and writing on a weekly basis. Occasionally, like the seventh wave, a poem would emerge which seemed greater than the others. Some poems were little but deeply felt, others were longer and had their own agenda. It was both an exploration and a revelation and I soon found I had quite a reservoir of poems.

I then decided to send a few to poetry competitions. By the end of the year my work had been shortlisted in several competitions including the Ver Poets Open Competition, the Yeovil Literary Prize and the Bridport Prize (two poems). This was encouraging and I decided to continue with my poem-a-week in 2017.

Looking at my file of work from last year, it is a diary of the seasons, but also of my memories. I have found most poems are closely linked to nature and the landscape, so, in this way I have continued my nature writing, but changed the shape of the text on the page.

Here is the little poem that was shortlisted in the Ver Poets Open Competition:-

School milk

The morning bell sent us clattering
from the chalk-fug of the classroom
scraping wooden chairs
elbowing and chattering
out into the January air.

There on a trestle in the shade
stacked crates of frosted bottles
silver tops balanced on small towers
of frozen cream
sticking to lips
as we tipped iced milk to hot mouths

eyes tilted to the snow-filled sky.

I remember how the chill crept slowly through me
an ache in my throat.

Jennifer Hunt
2016

Sea Wall

Sea wall was the name given to the South Dorset Ridgeway by those who lived in its shadow. It was seen as a natural barrier, keeping back the sea that raged against the Chesil Bank and the Jurassic Coast. This was the inspiration to my book which has just been published by Archaeopteryx Imprint Ltd.

I collected extracts from some of the posts published on my blog for the BBC Wildlife Magazine and mixed these with some of my poems, most of which were written last summer, but I have also included some from ten years ago when I lived at Kingston Russell on the landward side of the South Dorset Ridgeway. Several of these poems have already been published in different anthologies and poetry magazines such as Poetry Wales and South.

I then decided to create linocuts to illustrate my work. Originally I planned to make about six but, in the end, I was having so much fun, that there is a linocut on almost every page. Owls, hares, newts and skylarks are some of the wildlife touched on in my writing. Underpinning everything is the prehistoric landscape of the ridgeway itself. It is impossible to walk this ancient way without being aware of those who lived and worked there in times gone by. There are traces of worked flints, stone circles and sarsen stones. But there is also the indefinable sense of many footsteps ghosting the way. And, beyond the Ridgeway, is the sea in all its changing moods.

I enjoyed creating the book so much, I am already planning my next one on Chesil Beach and the Jurassic Coast so watch this space!

Sea Wall is available from www.archaeopteryx-imprint.co.uk for £10 plus postage & packing.

By-the-Wind Sailors

A gale force south-westerly was blowing so I headed for Hive Beach, Burton Bradstock on the Jurassic coast to do some wave-watching. The sea was huge and grey topped by white manes. A deep roaring sound filled the air as waves broke across the shingle. Curds of foam were blowing across the beach like enormous snowflakes.

I walked head down into the wind scanning the strandline. What looked like a piece of clear cellophane caught my eye. On closer inspection I saw a beautiful whorled pattern like a spider’s web and realised it was a tiny By-the-Wind Sailor jellyfish (Vellela) only about 1cm across. It was transparent and delicate, but marked with a concentric pattern and topped by a tiny translucent sail.

I then noticed that there were hundreds of these tiny creatures all over the beach. Some were a deep sapphire blue and up to about 8cm long whereas others were completely transparent. All were whorled like finger prints and delicate as glass. They were scattered all along the strandline like miniature shipwrecked yachts. The tiny tentacles on their undersides weren’t apparent, but, when I picked one up it left inky blue residue on the palm of my hand.

Like exquisite solar panels, the tiny medusa convert sunlight to energy, their small sails align with the direction of the prevailing winds and they are carried helplessly along, often to be wrecked in their thousands on the west coast of America. It is unusual to see them in Dorset. Storm Desmond has caused the biggest influx of these marine creatures in a decade.

I’ve never seen these beautiful little crafts before and it was both exciting and sad to see so many stranded on the shore, left high and dry by the rough seas.

Solway Firth

On the road to Wigtown
(book capital of Scotland)

Black quilled crow
on a dry stone wall in the rain.
Reeds fringing mudflats
stained sepia
creased like an old photo
left in a drawer.

I stop the car
get out and breathe
salt-soaked air
hear the lick and spit of water
through tissue layers of mist
riffling water and sky –

an open book
water-marked
pressed flat
spine cracked
lines of furrowed words
blurred by the press of birds’ feet
by the endless turning of
furled water
curling the edges
of this strange place

traced by a passing glance
bookmarked then
slammed shut.

I drive on.

Behind me
in those wide margins
the Solway story
is written every day
whether I read it
or not.
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WWT Caerlaverock, Dumfries and Galloway

The fog had lifted but a thick cover of cloud prevented any sun from coming through. We drove through a blizzard of autumn leaves along the coast road. I noticed a buzzard sitting on a telegraph pole hunched against the dull damp weather. It was low tide and the mudflats of the estuary stretched away till they merged with the grey sky. A silver lattice of water-filled gullies criss-crossed the furrowed mud, brightening the view.

We stopped at Castle Douglas nature reserve and walked through the Castle woods. It was silent and seemed devoid of birds although there were bird boxes positioned on many trees. The recent mild weather meant that some wild flowers were still flourishing – foxgloves and red campion among them. Black pods hung from the broom and red berries glistened with dew drops.

After a welcome stop at the small homely cafe we walked back through the woods and drove on to the Wetlands Wild Trust reserve at Caerlaverstock where the BBC Autumn Watch team were installed. Chris Packham and Michaela walked by with a retinue of cameramen and sound recordists.

A honking sound drew us to a large lake where hundreds of mallards, mute swans,mu Hooper swans, Canada geese and other water birds were dipping and diving. We watched from a glass-fronted viewing shelter and listened to a running commentary from a lady whose task it was to feed the birds from a large orange wheelbarrow.

An incoming tide washed the mudflats to a pale grey sheen as dusk fell and we headed back to a log fire. A hind sprang away across a field, her coat dark with rain, white tail flickering like a glow worm in the dim light.

Water Meadow Walk

The countryside is wefted by the winding trails of animals. Old footpaths tell the story of human wanderings and everyone has their favourite walk – a ritual of travelling the same route several times a week. Although the route is the same, it is always a different walk with the changing seasons and chance encounters. My regular walk is through the water meadows which surround the village, through the next village and back along the footpath which runs parallel to the main road.

I set off today under a pewter sky, no sun, through a field of sheep. Seeding thistles dotted grass which had that dark green tinge that comes with cooler days. As I reached the stile at the end, the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the chalk stream – the reflections looking like an abstract painting. Dead nettles and lush stinging nettles edged the narrow path, the innocent pink of Himalayan balsam belied its invasive nature. White bramble flowers glowed among sputnik-like ivy flowers, dusted with stinking lime green pollen.

Blackberries, Snowberries, Hips and Haws decorated the hedgerows. An inky cloud was now covering the northern sky and, as I glanced up, a Little Egret flew beneath it, white as a paper dart. I stopped on the bridge and leaned over to look at the water. A moorhen was dabbling about downstream and a couple of mallards were causing a splash as they took off from the surface. Then, beneath me, a kingfisher swooped out from under the arch of the bridge making me catch my breath. A blue streak lingered in my eyes long after it had gone.

Back along the cycle path, past seeding hogweed and teasels. Spiders’ webs draped the hedge. A scattering of pheasant’s feathers lay on the verge and nearby, at the edge of the road, the sad corpse of a fox cub. I walked home via a friend’s house to collect some huge green cooking apples. Next time the same walk will be different again . . .

Poetry Day – 4 of my poems

Pipistrelles
In the uncertainty of dusk
pipistrelles gather invisible sound
picking up echoes of warmth
from old stone walls
winding in the whirr
of insects’ wings
darting closer
in faltering light
weaving me into their loom
of silence –
netting thoughts.

I hear my daughter indoors
practising her scales,
notes swooping
dipping –

roosting even now
in my mind
undisturbed by time.

Chalk Ghost
Chalk ghost on the windowpane –
a barn owl drawn by its own reflection
flew into the moonlit glass last night,
left its outline etched in flight dust.

Swooping Narcissus-like
on its rippling image
left the imprint of each feather –
whirlpools of dust for eyes,
emptiness where the beak should be.
How the glass must have screeched
when the talons flexed.
closing on that wraith-like prey.

published by Poetry Wales

Written in Chalk
Beneath this swaying field of flax
a sea bed swarms with coiled creatures
tiny ammonites
cochlea echoing with Jurassic surf,
snails curling round pebbles
imprinted with the cicatrice
of fallen petals.

Below the keel of plough
fossil fish spawn in salt-white sponge
swim through ancient coral
brittle as bone.

When the moon brims over Knowle Hill
a tide still turns beneath the earth.
Moths move in shoals
through scented waves.

Close layers lie undisturbed –
memory written in chalk.

September
This evening
picking beans after a thunder shower,
shed blossoms cling like drab insects
to my fingers.
Late sun, yellow as pumpkin flowers.

Now, with my colander
by the open kitchen door,
the sun makes a square on the red lino.
Outside hens peck at shreds of light.

Soon bats will draw down the dark,
But I’ll leave the door open,
breathe in the honeysuckle air
while moths circle the lampshade
dizzy from touching the moon.

published by Poetry Wales

Poetry by Jennifer Hunt (copyright applies)
Photo by Brian L Hunt

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A child in the woods

At five years old I walked to school on my own through Oxleas Woods. Actually I used to run as fast as I could, keeping an eye out for wild beasts, bogie men and hobgoblins hiding in the trees. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Oxleas Woods, in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, is one of the few remaining areas of ancient deciduous forest, parts of which date back 8,000 years to the end of the last Ice Age.

At weekends I played in the woods with other children, damming rivulets with twigs and stones, making little houses of moss among the tree roots and creating dens in the thickets. It was a time dappled with the light and shadow of imagination. There were Silver Birch, Hornbeam and Wild Service trees. I didn’t know these names, but remember the silvery bark stretching up to the sun, the smell of the leaf mould and the feel of the rich dark mud next to the water that lit up dark places under the trees.

In the centre of the woods was a café on a hill in a clearing. While our mothers sat here drinking tea, we children rolled down the grassy slopes and played in the rhododendrons at the foot of the hill. We came across tramps sleeping rough in our dens but didn’t tell on them.

Last weekend I was in East Sussex visiting my daughter and family. We took Hattie and Hugo (aged 3 and twenty months) to Wilderness Woods near Heathfield and, while we drank tea in the café, the children played in the mud kitchen and climbed on the carved toadstools in the woods. This forest school has been created for children to experience what I took for granted as a child. There are giant chairs to climb on, bug hotels and swings. Amongst the woods are tree stumps that have been decorated by children with feathers and fir cones.

The following day we visited the Wood Fair near Ringmer. It was a misty autumn morning with dream-catcher webs festooning the long grasses. We all trudged happily through deep mud watching log-cutters, wood-turners, blacksmiths and other craftspeople. In the woodland were groups of people dying fabric with natural pigments, stirring cauldrons of bubbling liquid. There were deer created from twigs and berries, supervised tree-climbing and basket-makers working with local willow. Hattie stroked a Tawny owl and Hugo searched for ‘wiggly worms’ in the mud. Lucy’s Forest School had a pitch promoting their enterprise.

Seeing my grandchildren connecting with the natural world in this way, not only reminded me of my own childhood, but gave me hope that the future generation will take this love of nature into adulthood.