In the long-ago days, Beloved and I used to travel north exactly 300 miles from Cambridge to Lockerbie & to his parents’ home at nearby Parkgate, Dumfries. En route we used to stop and share a Thermos flask of tea, and salad sandwiches from our allotment. In a particular lane, just off the rugged A66, one of the Trans-Pennine routes from east to west.
A route that blizzards of snow used to close regularly in December and January of the 1970s, before dual carriageway was installed. And where snow fences are still visible in the 2020s, and useful in slowing down drifting on those heights.
In summer, winding down the window of the Mini-van (his) that I called Baby Blue (actually it was a muddy blue with a hint of grey-green in it) we would sense at last the wilder air of elevated moorland, punctuated by outcrops of Carboniferous limestone pavement. And often – in spring and midsummer – we’d gladden ourselves with the rippling, elevating phrases of Curlew song, up there near Stainforth.
There was late evening light to the west (we had driven up the A1 straight after work). Indeed we would be driving right into the sunset for part of the remaining leg of the journey, that would take us from this central, landlocked spot towards the western coast, at the Solway Firth.
Flash forward nearly fifty years, and today I’m up at the far north-east corner of the British mainland. Hastily wrapping the last of the token presents to send south to my sisters in North Wales and the West Midlands of England; to the Beloved in South Cambridgeshire; and to our son & daughter-in-love (and -in-law). The year-weds are within wandering distance of the River Cam as it saunters through from the chalklands (arising at Ashwell, near where I may have had my first ever glimpse of a running Hare) to join the River Great Ouse on the Fenland – yes we’ve seen Curlews hiding in silhouette among the overwintering Widgeon at the Ouse Washes – and thence to the sea at The Wash.
(Old Hunstanton, on the north-eastern corner of The Wash, is one of the only places in Britain where you can see the sun setting over the Eastern shore, or is it “dawning over the Western shore”? I am on a roll, again blog-writing at last, though you may have noticed there’s been a gap, while I go into the winter darkness in Midwinter Retreat Mode, solitary and contented at Dhruvaloka, my retreat/sanctuary space in Sutherland.)
Back to the Curlews, and back to the recent present.
A few days ago I received a card from the Beloved, with a Curlew on the front, and referring to our tendency in previous winters to escape “to the coast”:
Either for the day (notably Old Hunstanton, Norfolk, New Year’s Day 2000 (do you remember the paranoia about the Millennium Bug – an apocalyptic prediction of electronic doom?);
or for the week (notably Tywyn, mid-Wales – once spotting three porpoises dancing into view like “Three ships… on Christmas Day in the morning” and then leaping away. On the appropriate Day – when our teenager was still asleep…).
And this year winterval, while the Spouse is land-Locked-down and wood-working, I am coastal and net-working six-hundred miles north, and our son safely “bubbling” with his in-laws a hundred-or-so miles further on the British South Coast.
Which brings me back to curlews, they of that nostalgic, haunting bubbling song, on the high moorlands during nesting time, more rarely these days as compared to our post-graduate crop research days in the 1970s fields. (At the Plant Breeding Institute, Trumpington, itself no longer a Cambridge University Department and now built over.)
Curlews, those long distance migrants between their hatcheries on upland moors and their wintry coastal feeding grounds. Curlews, whose silhouettes I have seen, in ones and twos, both on the Ouse Washes of Cambridgeshire and also recently at my local harbour mouth, where the River Brora’s sweet water frills out into the deep salty Firth.
Curlews, their long bills curved down to continue the line of that sweeping gaze, as they wade on wintry mudflats. Their haunting “curlew” sound, both in the wild, and inhabiting the music of 20th century composers such as Benjamin Britten.
Today I was up – and downstairs – before the sun rose over the Moray Firth. Gazing over the wet mists of the croftlands, alert for the first train south. In due time, the 0816 trundles into view, surprising me as always by its fore-shortening and its size, as it slows into the station to my west.
And just about noon I come downstairs again from the wrapping, with sticky tape attaching to my soles, to be met by buff/grey-looking large birds a-pecking in the croft field beyond ours. The same colour as juvenile seagulls in summer, but those have whitened in winter.
I fetch my old 8 x 30 binoculars, bought in 1979 at Boots the Chemist, Cambridge, by Spouse.
They are Curlews! And for a short while only, probing – for Earthworms? – while I count their hunched forms. Eighteen of them! Perhaps travelling over from mainland Europe, assisted by the strong easterlies associated with the recent New Moon.
Next time I look up from writing this, to make a late lunch, they have finished theirs, and are gone.
Appreciation practice ~ for you to write your own, before I share mine
Today I am grateful for:
Today I’m grateful for:
~ my long history (her story) with curlews;
~ the seredipity of getting in touch, getting back in touch, and being in touch without touching (if you see what I mean);
~ the authenticity of the warm wishes that I am sending you all today xxx
Text copyright Kathy Labrum McVittie 16-17 December 2020
Wishing you and your readers festive wishes