Sunday, 31 January 2016

Writing from the Centre

Rain.   Rain.   And more rain.   That much was true.   Fingers of moisture, clawing their insidious way through the crevices of the turrets.   Tear-drops splashing from leaf to leaf, leaden enough to reach the floor from even the top of the sequoias.   Spider-webs, turned into be-jewelled filigree, woven amongst the hedges.   Rain.   Water.   Dank.   Damp.   Everywhere, in everything.   Day after day, after day.   One week into the next.

This is the opening paragraph of my story ‘Meeting Mr. Dickens’, which is reproduced in full in an earlier post.  Change a few words – turrets to chimneys, sequoias to sycamores – and it could be a description of the last few months at our home in Pembrokeshire.  Not just our home, of course.  It has been the same for the whole of the county.  Eglwyswrw to the east narrowly missed claiming the record for rain on the longest number of consecutive days.  The south has had flooding, and winter storms have battered the west.

Not the best time to make a New Year’s resolution to start keeping an occasional nature diary.  My first thought was ‘to write my square mile’ – a favourite writing-course subject.  But I wasn’t doing a writing-course, so I could change the rules if I wanted, couldn’t I?   I could make it three miles, to take in Abercastle, our closest coastal point.  Or I could ‘write my OS map’ –  one side of it, at least. In every other place we have lived, our village has been on the edge of the map, meaning we have always had to buy two.  Here, it’s different.  We live near Mathry.  We’re virtually in the centre of OS Explorer North Pembrokeshire, West Sheet.  True, a lot of the map above us is sea.  But, still, it’s a great area to live in.  It takes in St David’s and the surrounding peninsula to the west, a chunk of St Brides Bay below us; and that rugged northern coastline with its numerous small coves - my favourite part of all.  Well,  sometimes…   So that’s what I’ve decided to focus on.  But, then again, if I want to include some of my ‘other’ favourites that are off the page, well, perhaps I will.

Abercastle, Pembroekshire, Coast
Abercastle (photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)
Closer in, our house is at the edge of a small wood, with fields behind. And a short walk up the road takes me to a view of the Preselis, our mini-mountains.  Like the wider context, I consider this to be an ideal location – we’re not just restricted to the coast, breath-taking as that is.  Our landscape includes so much variety.  Just like the county itself.

 January isn’t the best month to start noting natural observations, even in ‘normal’ winters.  It’s a month of hibernation, with everything dormant, the ground ungiving, the cold stalling life.  Or that’s how it should be. But this year, except for one or two haphazard days, all we have had is that rain.  And wind.  And a strangely mild temperature.  Nothing is as it should be.  The roses haven’t stopped blooming.  My neighbour’s daffodils have been and gone.  The grass is still growing. And because of the rain, it’s been hard to get out – and to see what’s around you when you do. 
But we’re lucky.  The wood gives us wildlife on our doorstep.  Because of the food we provide, birds are a constant.  Almost every day, they tumble about the feeding-stations, in confusing profusion – like a scene from a Walt Disney fairy-tale movie.  When David Attenborough made his series ‘Life of Birds’, he remarked that birds provided man’s closest encounter with wildlife.  This is certainly true for us.  Pembrokeshire is, of course, a great place for all kinds of bird-watching.  It has some spectacular sea-birds, easily visible from land, like the puffins on Skomer, or the guillemots on Stack Rocks.  Then there are the estuary and river species – the herons, geese and ducks, interspersed with rare visitors, such as the spoonbill at Newport a few years ago.  Or the glossy ibis at Marloes mere.  Here, we’ve got the more usual garden varieties, but they are still a joy to see.

5th January.  Too many chaffinches to count. Great tits, blue tits, coal tits.  Rooks, jackdaws, robins, sparrows, wrens, woodpeckers, goldfinches.  The goldfinches with their fragile luminosity are a particular joy to see in these dull, depressing days.  They are a bird that features repeatedly in religious art, representing, amongst other things, the soul, redemption, protection.  More recently, Donna Tartt, in her novel ‘The Goldfinch’, used Carel Fabritius’s painting of the bird as her representation for beauty, and the main character’s connection with his dead mother.  Another ‘pure’ motif, perfectly encapsulated in that tiny, perfectly formed, gold and red plumage. 

Goldfinch (photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)
Yet when you observe the behaviour of these finches, they are far removed from that noble image.  On the feeders, they hold their own amongst the bigger birds, squabbling amongst themselves, and fighting for their place, quite viciously, sometimes.  They are tenacious, greedy birds, seldom choosing to wait in line, for their turn, always going for the ‘best’ food, seldom put off by the wind and rain.  But then, ‘feeding and breeding’ is what it’s all about for most creatures.  Survival is the key word.  And the goldfinches are determined to succeed – their numbers have increased considerably in recent years.

Nuthatch (photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)
 We also have a few less common additions to the regulars.  A pair of nuthatches has joined us this year – another striking bird, that darts in and darts out, to hide his food in the top of the sycamore, and a multitude of other places.  It has been great to see the greenfinches back – four, at least – after an absence of a couple of seasons. The opposite of their ‘gold’ cousins, they have struggled lately, on account of the trichomonosis virus. And yesterday I was watching a thrush.  Sad, really, to regard what was such a common British bird as a rare sighting.
Some we don’t always see.  Their calls reach up to us from the wood, but they stay hidden.  The cough of the pheasant.  The screech of the shy jay – ‘yscrech y coed’ in Welsh.  The ke-wick of the tawny owl, moving through the trees.

10th January.  Woken in the early hours by the owl.  Not the gentle twitwitwhoo, so often associated with them.  ‘Gwdihw’ – the Welsh word came to me, remembered from reading to the boys.  Such a lovely word.  Of course, there are a lot of myths associated with the owl in Wales, as in many other countries.  The best known is from the Mabinogion – Blodeuwedd (flower-face) being turned into an owl, never to show her face in daylight, and to be mobbed by all the other birds.  We haven’t seen the owl recently, but I have seen it in the past – being harassed by blackbirds, as it happened.   I probably shouldn’t be glad that I saw it, on account of all the ill-omens attached to it.  But I always feel privileged by any contact with nature, and though I love the folk-lore that comes from the countryside, I tend to dismiss those tales that speak of dark foreboding. Right now, I’m particularly hoping the rhyme about early bird-song isn’t true.
 ‘Os can yr adar cyn Chwefror, hwy griant cyn Mai.’
‘If birds sing before February, they will cry before May.’ 
In other words, it’s a sign of hard weather to come.  Particularly if the bird is a blackbird or a thrush… which I was lucky enough to hear singing yesterday…

20th January.  A wonderful starry sky when I got up.  We are lucky enough to be without street lights, here, which can allow us to have some really good views of the stars and the planets.
The rooks were ten minutes ahead of schedule today – another sign of a clear early morning.  They’ve been on the move at a quarter to eight for the past few weeks – rising from the wood, circling, then heading west, on the look out for food.
This was a proper winter’s day.  A bright blue, cloudless sky. Frost, even on the lower garden. Definitely a day for a walk up the road.  Ice in the puddles – I couldn’t help staring at it, it seemed so long since I had seen any. The frost on the banks looked strange.  I realised it was because the grass was long – it has kept growing.  The white streaks seemed to have been brushed on to each blade, rather than covering the whole.  As if a giant’s hairdresser had sprayed it delicately with some ‘Silver Moon’ hair-colour.  The fine day brought the tractors out in force.  A reminder that Pembrokeshire is still very much a farming county, no matter how much tourism seems to take it over, during the season.  Even more surprising, perhaps, is how the landscape has been formed by industry – and not just the modern gas and oil of the Haven Waterway to the south…

21st January, 2016.  I’m standing by the Blue Lagoon, at Abereiddi.  But I’m not looking at the deep, silent pool, as everyone else is doing.  Instead, I’m staring the other way, at the rock-wall facing the sea, facing the weather.  The winter storms have stolen away a layer of scree. What I see is a muddle of shapes and colours, like a crazy patchwork quilt.  Jagged greens, greys, copper.  Streaks of white, stitched through them.  It’s beautiful.
I’ve been here many times before, but I’ve never seen this.  I’ve seen plenty of other changes, worked by both man and weather.  Years ago, when we first visited, there was no safe, sturdy bridge to walk on.  We had to edge across, our backs to the cliff.  And we were almost always alone, when we reached the lagoon, except for the seals, and, if the timing was right, their pups, latched onto the steep sides like fluffy barnacles.
Now the pool has become a favourite destination for adventure tourists.  The shrieks of coasteering children echo off the high walls.  Strange bubbles break the surface, making you wonder what fearful monster lurks beneath.  But it’s just a diver, exploring this twenty-five metre deep, near-perfect circle of water.
All so different from the quiet, secret place of my childhood, that scene of natural wonder.  Except it wasn’t natural at all. The lagoon is a relic of the slate industry, which thrived in Pembrokeshire in the late eighteenth century. It was formed when the channel connecting the quarry to the sea was blasted, allowing the sea to flood in.
 My coloured wall is part of that quarry.  You have to go a lot further back for this small bay to be no more than a site of farming and fishing.  And even further for it to be a remote cove, with nothing but the sea-birds and the seals circling around.

Abereiddi, Abereiddy, Pembrokeshire, Coast
Abereiddi (photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)
23rd January.  Another beach walk, snatched in another few dry hours.  South, this time, to Newgale.
Somewhere else I’ve been many times, walking along its beach.  But, just as at Abereiddi, there’s something new to see.  There always is.  Changes with the time of year, the time of day, the tide.  The weather, again.  The storms of 2014 revealed the remains of an ancient forest, ten thousand years old.  Hunter-gatherers would have foraged for roots and berries where we now walked along the sand.  The trees have appeared again, this year, but that’s not what’s caught my eye.  Ahead of us, there’s a patch of pale, dry sand that the wind is catching.  I don’t why it should be just in one place, but it is. We walk into it, and the golden grains are blowing like waves just above the surface, rippling ahead.  They are flickering wraiths, dancing round our ankles, trying to trip us up, but leading us on.  And then it ends.

This is what I love – the infinite wonder of this place, the surprises it throws up, casually, almost.  As if it is saying ‘Look! And look again!’  Perhaps everyone feels the same about their own particular landscape.  But I like to think it’s something special about Pembrokeshire, where I live.  Here.