Mallards

Postcard from Lockdown

We moved house between lockdowns last October. In this home-centred world it seemed both fitting and incongruous. We didn’t go far, staying in the same quiet bypassed village. The two houses couldn’t be more different – from a tall thin 3-storey newish build to a single-storey thatched property dating from 1613. This cottage is known locally as Plague Cottage as it was a refuge for sufferers of the Bubonic Plague in the middle ages. This name resonates in present times, but we stayed with its later name of Bumblebee Cottage as it seemed more cheerful and the building looks like a domed hive.

When we first arrived, the cottage looked like something out of a Hans Andersen fairy tale – trammelled in ivy, over-shadowed by a sinister fir tree, its windows blocked by an overgrown buddleia. Brambles had woven themselves around every shrub, and a yellow rose had climbed up into the thatch. The house had been empty for a while and seemed sad, hunkered down, its thatch hat pulled down over its eyes.

During the first lockdown in March 2020, I spent every day drawing and painting, with the aim of finishing my book, A Year on the Jurassic Coast. The days flew by as I immersed myself in virtual walks along the coast, absorbed in recreating the beauty of the coastline of Dorset and Devon in pen, ink and watercolour. It went to print in June and came out in July, having a brief airing during the Indian summer in various galleries and shops until Lockdown struck again. I created an online shop at http://www.seashed.co.uk and then an article in Coast Magazine, in their October issue, lit up my book in a shaft of winter sun as we approached Christmas.

Now, settled in our dumpy little cottage, I am enjoying my studio in the garden which I’ve finally managed to sort out ready to start drawing, painting, writing, running workshops, etc. But of course, I have no visitors. So I’m writing this wish-you-were-here postcard in lieu of actually seeing people. I’m hoping that I shall be able to participate in Dorset Art Weeks at the end of May when I look forward to being able to welcome visitors. In the meantime I am again working from memories and my imagination. I’ve spent some time framing lots of old photos to hang on the wall to remind me of the good old days. I’m missing family and friends and, sometimes, even talking to myself!

When the weather allows, or quite often when it doesn’t, I walk through the village to the water meadows hoping to see a Kingfisher. This usually appears when my mind has wandered on to something else and, suddenly, one surprises me by skimming past my nose as I cross a bridge. I lean on the parapet watching the glossy mallards towing their reflections down the chalk stream. Winter-bare trees reveal their symmetry. Willows line up like a stack of coloured pencils. A heron stands motionless at the water’s edge pretending to be a piece of grey sky. Distant tangles of bramble have a purple tinge. I wait for the time when the sun starts to gild these with silver and then green.

The thatcher is coming on Monday to re-ridge our roof. The cottage will then look even more like a hive waiting for the buzz of bees. We make soup on the Aga, bake cakes and venture into the garden when the ground isn’t too wet, wondering what unknown plants will start to emerge as the temperature rises. Already there are hopeful clumps of leaves huddled against the frost. We are making raised beds for vegetables and I have trays of sprouting seedlings on the windowsills. It feels as though the whole world has gone into extended hibernation. We wait for the sun to release us from our house-bound dormancy.

Outside our front door, a witch’s broom is mounted on the wall. Lodged above it, under the thatch, is a blackbird’s nest. I used to see the occupant, watching me with a suspicious dark eye, last summer when I visited the cottage. We have left the nest where it is, wondering if she might return this year. Today though the weather is bleak and bird-less with an easterly wind finding gaps in doors and windows. The grass is white and so is the sky. People aren’t venturing out, so there’s no opportunity for a chat over the gate. We find our masks useful to keep our faces warm, and we walk, eyes downcast, fearful of ice.

It is quiet, hardly any traffic, the thatch muffles the wind. However, the evenings are gradually getting lighter and soon the days will be longer – we shall be able to see the way forward. We text, email, zoom, FaceTime, but miss hugs and seeing the grandchildren grow. The younger ones will be wary when we see them again – used to keeping their distance. We have all learned new habits, like crossing the road when someone approaches. I used to apologise – ‘nothing personal!’ – but now we all do it and everyone knows why. The world is different, birds sing more loudly, wild creatures venture into urban spaces, we feel our insignificance and vulnerability. Deep down, we fear for the human race and what we have done to the planet. There is a sense that the natural world is starting to bite back, that harmony may, one day, be restored and human beings put in their place. We hope that things may soon be different, that we may have learnt lessons.

There is some benefit in being confined to the home. We have time to talk, to cook and get to know our surroundings intimately. Like creatures inhabiting a burrow, we are acutely aware of strange sounds, the weather, the phases of the moon and the smell of snow in the air. We have become familiar, even in the dark, with every twist and turn of our walls, know the texture of stone and brick. One day I noticed a distorted face marked in a knapped flint in the kitchen wall. The silence around us seeps into our heads so we hear our thoughts loudly. At night we shut the gate, draw the curtains, pour a glass of wine and try to avoid the TV news.

We are the lucky ones and I hardly dare begin to think about all those who are truly suffering during this time, especially children, missing their friends and schooling, perhaps neglected through poverty or depression. The homeless, the ill and the bereaved are the true casualties of this pandemic – people unable to get out of bed in the morning and who keep the curtains drawn to avoid shedding light on their pain. People who live in flats with no outside space, city centres where there’s nowhere to walk and those who have lost their jobs and income because of the situation. Whenever I start to get cabin fever, I have only to think of these people and I count my blessings.

I wish everyone health and happiness as we tread hesitantly into this new year. We have just had Imbolc – the pagan festival which marks the beginning of spring. It was on 1st February, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It is the Chinese New Year tomorrow, the Year of the Ox – a symbol of strength and forward movement, perhaps a sign of hope for the future.

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.

Looking for spring

Bramble leaves were purple with cold. Black fungi and yellow lichen crept over bare branches. A dead badger lay by the roadside and debris from fast-food outlets littered the verges. Overhead a buzzard was being mobbed by a crow – a macabre aerial ballet. The clear chalk stream of the River Frome was flowing fast under the bridge and a skein of mallards flew sketchily across the grey sky.

It was a gloopy sort of day. A curtain of thick grey fog hung over Portesham Hill. The road was covered in a slippery layer of stinking mud. Hedges had been flailed creating raw splinters of wood that poked through the mist. I was looking for signs of spring, but, apart from a celandine, some catkins and an isolated patch of fragile white blossom, everything was still steeped in winter gloom.

However, in my sister’s garden the surface of the pond was corrugated with clumps of frogspawn. It was all clustered on the shaded side of the water – a myriad of eyeballs , small black pupils unseeing, but warding off predators. I remembered the nature table at school and the excitement of watching tadpoles develop. I was fascinated by the change in the frogspawn from black dots to squiggles, and loved drawing the different stages in pencil on sugar paper, revelling in the word ‘metamorphosis’ which seemed to sum up for me the mysteries and excitement of the natural world.

When I was nine our class was occasionally taken down the road to a long sloping garden owned by an elderly lady called Mrs Fiddler. She kindly allowed the children to come and play on the grass in fine weather. At the top of the garden was a pond which drew me into forbidden territory. I would hide in the grass next to the water, watching the newts and other wildlife. In the spring I’d scoop a lump of frogspawn into a jam jar and smuggle it back to school, keeping it in my desk. I took it home at the end of the day and tipped the gelatinous soup into a large glass bowl. I once caught a great crested newt and somehow got it home. It looked newly painted with orange and black splodges on its belly, but it vanished overnight from its fruit bowl. I searched guiltily for a corpse for days but found no trace of it.

Today I lifted a lump of the rubbery jelly from my sister’s pond and drove home carefully with it in a washing-up bowl. All these years later, yet I can’t wait to see my frogspawn begin to turn into froglets.

Notes from a green planet

Early morning on a muggy day – no wind and a canopy of blue-grey cloud. Biblical rays of sun breaking through here and there. Light rain stippling my skin. The church clock has stopped at midnight when the jackdaws jammed up the works with their nest.

A mayfly spiralling upward towards a swallow on the wire. I could hear swallows under the railway bridge and think they have nests under the dark ledges, but can’t see them. A froth of cow parsley lines the verges like umbrellas at a wedding. Mallards taking off with splashing sounds from their reflections on the stream.

Frisky Friesians were in the footpath field so I chose the lane. Past a badger’s sett no longer in use, the white chalk greening over. Beeches and sycamores crowd up to the edges of the lane creating a dense green tunnel. Does green have a smell? I think so – a peppery, garlicky, sagey sort of scent. It has a sound of quiet rustling. Large rain drops are now landing on big leaves with a tapping noise.

Some places seem to be discrete environments where outside influences don’t exist. Here in this green place there is a profound silence only broken by birdsong. It’s like being in a dream – a deep green planet spinning off on its own. Muddy puddles reflect the trees, creating a watery liminal woodland beneath my feet.

Out of the dream and into the open lane with the sound of the stream the other side of the hedge. Snails like humbugs and spat-out boiled sweets slither over stems, some crushed like eggshells on the tarmac. Plantain with coronets of white flowers, dog roses displaying perfect rain drops, buttercups, dog daisies, comfrey, campions – all attracting insects from cow-pat coloured flies to bees like tiny golden bears. The elderflowers smell like honey.

The rain is ponderous now and the cow parsley has an antiseptic hospital-white smell. There are seven swans a-swimming on the river and a single swallow dipping overhead. A clump of ox-eye daisies on the edge of the road defies passing traffic, the sound of the rush-hour is starting and I’m getting wet …

Lodmoor – a snapshot in time

 

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A sepia landscape, static as an old photo. Silky shawls of brown reeds fringing still water. A hundred years ago the country was on the brink of war – the lull before the world changed forever. I thought about my grandpa and his diary of the conflict, charting his journey from country lad to gunner.

I walked quietly through this monochrome place, through mud, through a swarm of black flies, scanning the celluloid water for signs of life. The lack of colour became unimportant as I tuned into the sounds around me. Honks, whistles, squawks and eerie cries came skimming across the wetlands and reed beds. Why is it that water birds have such a bugling repertoire compared with other birds – perhaps because the element of water adds a glorious echo to every sound, encouraging exuberant rowdy singing …

Lodmoor is the perfect habitat for herons, egrets and a home for the European eel. A splashing sound in the reeds made me stop – may be an otter, but I couldn’t see anything. Today was a day of sound and imagination, in the absence of colour and clear views.

I heard a sound like a small donkey coming from the torn edges of the reeds – a Canada Goose. Mallards, Pochards, Coots and Swans were all gliding in slow motion through the still water, their outlines broken up like frames from an old film as they passed behind the stems of the reeds.

The air was smoky with clouds of pollution blowing from Europe. Overhead three Marsh Harriers were silhouetted gliding against the haze – two females and a male. One of the females had lost several primary feathers from one wing and part of her tail, giving her a vulture-like look as she circled clumsily waiting for a kill.

Suddenly I heard what I had come for – the hollow rhythmic booming of a Bittern. One, two, three times like the distant sound of a heavy gun.

Frank House 1