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.

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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.

Greenways

I am the wanderer on the greenways
and the ghost ways. My bare feet hear
the beat of others’ journeys, feel the heat
of those who’ve passed this way before.
Old songs echo in the hollow ways.
The anvil strikes and, in my head, the thud
of clay upon the potters’ wheel.
I tread the hare-path on the open downs.
Sometimes I kneel or lie awhile
my ear pressed to the ground. I hear
the throb of axes, crackle of bones,
the cries of those who lie deep down
buried in time’s hard layers. In snickets,
leys and field paths I know the corners,
hollow stumps, causeways and bends
where ancient stones have left their mark.
I smell honey and herbs, the crush of sap,
woodsmoke as dusk thickens the air.
On the ridgeway I shapeshift,
sometimes a deer, sometimes a hare,
drifting along the long white edge
between sea and clear chalk streams.
Dewponds and springs refresh my feet
as I pace endlessly without rest
keeping the spirit-ways open
for those who follow on.

Fossils, myths and new shoes

Last day of the summer holidays and Chesil Beach is empty. It lies like a bleached bone along the Jurassic Coast. The sky is a pale and distant blue. Autumn term is dawning and six year old Jago is moving up from the ‘Mary Anning’ class. He has his new school shoes and is noticing everything today – a lit-up moment between past and future.

We walk down the path to Cogden beach among clouds of Common blue butterflies and floating thistledown. Three-year-old Finley is singing to himself and jumping dramatically over piles of rabbit droppings. Jago can’t wait to find a fossil. On the beach he lifts a huge stone, shouting he’s found a dinosaur bone. Every stone seems marked with the traces of past life, spirals which could be ammonites, ridges that hide belemnites, curves of ancient shells and fish. I point out the seed pods of the Sea kale to Finley and he immediately starts picking off the dense black balls and planting them in the shingle.

Along the strandline is a silvery line of hundreds of dead whitebait, looking like twists of silver paper. A huge pipe, about thirty feet long, has been washed up on the beach. It is covered, inside and out, in Goose barnacles, stranded high and dry. The legend was that these goose-shaped shellfish with their long necks, eventually open their white wings and fly away as Barnacle geese.

This theory of spontaneous regeneration was put forward in the Twelfth Century by Bishop Giraldus Cambrensis who said that Irish Churchmen would eat the Barnacle goose during fasts because ‘these birds are not flesh nor being born of the flesh for they are born at first like pieces of gum on logs of timber washed by the waves. Then enclosed in shells of a free form they hang by their beaks as if from the moss clinging to the wood and so at length in process of time obtaining a sure covering of feathers, they either dive off into the waters or fly away into free air.’ This myth became widespread.

At the edge of the shingle the yellow flowers of the Horned poppy are glowing like the autumn sun, contrasting with clumps of silvery-grey Sea Kale. Today summer ended. The sky is shimmering in the puddles on the path. Jago jumps in, forgetting his new shoes, scattering shards of pale blue water across the pebbles.

Butterfly Bonanza

The Buddliea I planted last year is hanging its purple lamps across the garden and, above it, is a constant whirring and buzzing of insects – bees, hoverflies, moths and butterflies. I looked out yesterday and saw a Humming bird Hawk-Moth hovering from flower to flower. I rushed to get my camera, but when I got out there it had vanished. Then there was a vibration next to my right ear and it zoomed in, touched down briefly on my chest then flew off.

When the sun appeared yesterday I saw Red Admirals, Tortoiseshells, Peacocks and a beautiful female Brimstone. After the recent cool damp weather, these butterflies seemed galvanised into a flying fluttering frenzy by the sudden heat of the sun’s rays.

On the ground was an enormous caterpillar – that of the Elephant Hawk Moth. It had fearsome ‘eyes’ and dinosaur-grey skin which rippled and wrinkled as it shimmied along. I watched it till it reached safe cover. These caterpillars feed on Fuchsia, among other things, so I was glad I’d planted a Fuchsia shrub.

Today it is grey and dull again, but I keep looking out in the hope of seeing the Humming Bird Hawk Moth again.

A wing and a prayer

It’s a time of winged things. Summer is taking flight and giving way to autumn. House martins are whirling through thundery air, stocking up on insects before their journey.

In the park, Finley, aged two, is swinging higher and higher – ‘I’m flying …’ Jago, five, is standing still staring at the ground where there is a seething mass of silver wings among the grass. The muggy humid weather has created perfect conditions for flying ants to hatch. The newly emerged young queens and males are spiralling up on sweet-wrapper wings to mate in mid-air. Afterwards the queen bites off her wings, which have served their purpose, and creates a new nest by digging into the soil. The males, having mated, die.

Finley blows the seeds of a dandelion – ‘two, three, six’ and hands me the bare stalk. We examine a stink bug (Coreus marginatus) which has landed on his jeans. A fly sits beside me on the picnic bench. The droning sound of bees blends with distant thunder. In the garden, borage and lavender are straggling everywhere, but I refuse to tidy up as the insects love these plants. Hoverflies, ladybirds, wasps and bees are pinned to every petal.

As we watch the shimmering wings of the ants disappearing into the shadows of the lime trees we hear a loud roaring sound and the Red Arrows fly over in formation. Later is the sad news of the Hawker Hunter crash at Shoreham.

Hampton Stone Circle

Do you ever have one of those days when you want to hide from the world? Sometimes things get too busy and you just need time out. I had a day like that recently. Things went haywire right from the start. I felt like a double image where my real self was out of alignment and slightly removed from reality.

I set off along the South Dorset Ridgeway above Portesham, feeling exposed and vulnerable on the chalky path. I saw myself from a distance – an ant on a strip of white paper – insignificant and infinitely squashable. The light was brash and a strong wind winnowed from the coast raking fields of barley to a silver sea. My hair blew across my face and I stumbled over flints. Hawthorn trees bent away from the relentless gales, their limbs twisting as they tried to escape.

I came across a sign for Hampton Stone Circle but couldn’t see any sign of it. Then, amongst a weedy patch in the corner of the field I saw it – the grey backs of the stones just visible through the stalks of cow parsley and brambles. I threaded my way through the tangle of undergrowth and sat on the first stone I saw. I was hidden by the tall stems of the grass surrounding me. The stone felt strangely warm, a comfortable place to sit out of the wind. Here it was quiet apart from the rustling of leaves and the low buzz of insects.

I stayed there a while feeling sheltered and protected from the bright open landscape. I couldn’t count the stones as they were covered by vegetation. It was as if they had grown from the ground. Looking up I could see the circle of the sky. Under my hand, the surfaces of the stones were calloused and veined. I could smell the pineapple weed dotted around by my feet. Pale moths flitted ghostlike from leaf to leaf. A pink and green grasshopper landed on my foot. Far away a skylark was singing.

When I stood up the world was a circle around me, half bordered by sea. I closed my eyes and heard the barley moving like surf. I wondered about the people who had made stone circles and what prompted them to create such structures. Words and ideas shifted around in my mind. I could hear the sound of pebbles being moved endlessly in the long-shore drift along the Jurassic Coast.

Water blog

We sailed under Weymouth town bridge with nine inches to spare, not waiting for it to be raised as we wanted to catch the tide. A cardboard cup blew off the table as we headed for the Shambles, east of Portland Bill. There were three of us aboard, bound for the Isles of Scilly in a motor yacht, Moonlight Dancer. We were going to see my daughter who was working there for the summer. It was my first real sea voyage.

For a while I had been in emotionally uncharted waters and it felt good to be planning a trip meticulously and to know my destination. However, I was apprehensive about how I would cope with rough seas and had a supply of ginger sweets just in case. We gave the notorious Portland Race a wide berth, but the seas were very rocky and it took a while to round the Bill.

As we entered Lyme Bay off the Jurassic Coast, a watery sun tarnished the lumpy waves. A gannet swooped past in a flash of yellow, black and white then a fulmar skimmed the bow, dipping one wing in the water as it passed. Soon we were surrounded by a flock of fulmars, guillemots and black-backed gulls. I stood on deck with a sense of being cocooned in their weaving flight as they moved effortlessly between air and water, equally at home in either.

By late afternoon we sighted Start Point. We had the sun in our eyes and were negotiating three-metre waves. We decided to head for Salcombe to shelter overnight, but would be entering the harbour at low tide over the sand bar across the entrance. The sun went down and it became grey and murky. My feet were numb as we finally tied up in Salcombe. We could see the pub on the harbour side among the huddled houses, but had to be content with imagining its comforting warmth and good food.

When you see waves coming onto a beach, they seem orderly – all lining up and taking their turn to roll in. Out on the sea it’s a different matter – they seem to come from all directions and flow together in a chaotic mix of peaks and troughs. It makes for a relaxing night’s sleep however, being rocked about continuously.

The next morning was colder and windier. A weak sun glittered across the harbour as we had a cooked breakfast. We set off into a swelling sea, punching tide and doing 12 knots. About mid-morning a pod of dolphins appeared and swam along with us, playing around the boat for about ten minutes. I wondered if they could sense our pleasure and excitement at seeing them. I tried to take photos without success – all I got was a splash or two as if the camera was a net, from which they were trying to escape.

What must it be like to live in a limitless environment like the sea instead of being tethered to rooms, houses and towns . . . The cohesion between this family of dolphins formed an entity stronger than any manmade city. The collective fluidity of the creatures was like the sea itself – a harmony of living that seemed so much more sophisticated than our own muddled existence.

The dark curves of the plunging dolphins shed water like memories leaving bubbles of laughter on the surface of the sea. The way they moved seemed carefree, exultant yet purposeful and organised. I wondered if they were aware of the stick-like creature standing on the deck cheering them on.

Just off Fowey five warships loomed menacingly out of the fog, then two more dolphins swam reassuringly beside us in tandem, mirroring each other’s movements. By 2pm we had covered fifty-two miles and had forty-eight to go before we arrived on Scilly. We passed the Lizard then Lands End and saw the splendid isolation of Wolf Rock Lighthouse as the seas became very rough, and there was no leisure to do anything but try to keep the boat on course.

Scilly emerged from the distant horizon – a collection of fragmented rocks no bigger than seals. On a clear Summer’s day the Atlantic waters would be turquoise, each island surrounded by a frill of white sand, but this evening the archipelago seemed more sea than land, grey and indistinct. We set a course for St Mary’s and went slowly on a low tide down Crow Sound to the Quay where my youngest daughter waited – a sleek silhouette against the setting sun – as we came alongside.