October 17, 2015

A time of gifts

Sometimes the natural world comes to you like a gift, and leaves you open-hearted and amazed. These aren’t moments you can seek – and that, somehow, makes them more valuable.

I’m in Northumberland, on a two-week writing residency. I’m incredibly fortunate to have been invited, by the Hexham Book Festival, to come up here and work; opportunities like this are invaluable for writers who, like me, must somehow sustain a day job as well as their literary commitments, or who have family responsibilities that eat into their time.

It can be strange, though: being by yourself for two weeks, and just writing – or trying to. There is the fear that the words won’t come, and the precious time will be wasted; there’s pressure, too, to produce something for your hosts that will be good enough to justify the investment they’ve made in you. And there’s the sheer fact of being alone, without anyone to share how you’re feeling; if you find yourself feeling low, it can be hard to shake.

Of course, mobile phones and social media can alleviate the sense of solitude, although on this trip all my efforts to get the internet in my Northumbrian cottage failed, and today the phone signal, weak at the best of times, disappeared too. At about four in the afternoon I set out into the little granite-built moorland town to post a postcard home, and decided while I was out to see if I could pick up a signal while walking past the coffee shop. As I only thought I’d be out for a little while, I didn’t take my camera or my binoculars – which would prove a mistake.

I got online, briefly, but there was no answer at home, so I decided to walk down to the town bridge and look at the water for a few minutes before trying again. The day had been damp and cold and dim, but the clouds were clearing and it was turning into a lovely October evening. There were lots of townsfolk about: dog walkers, a couple pushing their baby in a pram, a few people chatting on the benches.

I strolled along the riverbank by the children’s playground, and it was there that I had the first of the evening’s encounters. A song stopped me, musical but a little scratchy, continuous, unfamiliar, with no pause for breath. I stood; stared; turned around; stood again. I stepped gingerly to the very water’s edge and peered into an overhanging willow. The sound had a strangely ventriloquial quality; I just couldn’t determine where it was coming from – but I was growing more and more convinced that it wasn’t any bird I had heard before.

Eventually I spotted it: on the far bank, among the roots of an alder. A dipper! There he was, white bib blazing, reeling out song like a tiny, wind-up musical box. I’ve seen dippers before, of course: on the Dart in Devon, and in Cumbria; I’ve watched them dive, and dart from rock to rock. I’ve never heard one sing. Pointlessly, I took a photo of the far bank with my ancient, screen-shattered phone, hoping at least for the tiny white dot of his bib.

It was perhaps ten minutes until he ran out of notes, bobbed a few times, and slipped into the shadows of the bank. I turned away, hearing a dog bark, and because I missed my own I petted it, and as dog and owner moved away my eye was caught by a movement in the grass beside the children’s playground, and I stared and moved closer, thinking it was perhaps a rat, and knowing all the time that it wasn’t, the gait wasn’t right, and a rat would surely have run from my approaching feet and of course, as I got closer, of course, it was a hedgehog.

I last saw a living hedgehog about eight or nine years ago, in Shropshire, and before that I think only in childhood, when they were regular garden visitors. They are now becoming vanishingly rare. The statistics are heartbreaking: some predict they will be extinct in the UK by 2030 or so. How we have let this happen is what confuses and angers me: this isn’t a creature that harms or even inconveniences us in any way, yet we have made its life here untenable, and I am ashamed of that. Yet here a hedgehog was – a small one, button-eyed and bristly – shambling his way through the riverside grass. Of course, I took a photo, and another, and then my phone battery died.

I couldn’t call home now. I couldn’t tweet. But I needed to tell someone, and so I did: a couple with a baby, some people on a bench. They strolled over and had a look at him, mildly interested; I, meanwhile, was grinning like an idiot. My day had been transformed by my pair of sightings; I felt I had been given a gift. I felt taken out of myself, included in something; I knew I didn’t want to go back to the house. A path lay ahead of me, along the north bank of the river, and I could see the green slopes of the dale beyond lit by the late afternoon sun. Once the hedgehog had made his way safely under a gate into someone’s back garden, away from any excitable dogs, I set out.

You can become a little odd about the outside world on these trips – or I can, anyway. Claustrophobic, lonely, pressured and stir-crazy, you can also become oddly house-bound, reluctant to engage with the world outside the ‘writing space’. Perhaps it’s the nagging sense that time spent on other things is ‘wasted’ (though of course, it never is); perhaps it’s just the energy needed to engage with a new and unfamiliar place. Either way, a feeling can steal over you: frustration with being inside by yourself all day, coupled with an equal and opposite unwillingness to go out.

That feeling was gone. As I walked by the river, I could hear birds all around me: greenfinches and chaffinches, blackbirds, wrens and robins; overhead, jackdaws and wood pigeons were heading to their evening roosts. Around a bend in the river some local kids were hanging out on a shingle spit just far enough away from the town bridge to be unseen; they were playing music through a set of phone speakers, and in the river a line of three-litre bottles were keeping cool: coke with vodka in it, probably; perhaps rum or Jack Daniels. I felt a wash of nostalgia as I passed that was unbearably acute.

I came to a field gate with a hand-lettered sign: “BEWARE: ONLY ENTER THIS FIELD IF YOU CAN CROSS IT IN 9 SECONDS COS THE BULL CAN DO 10”. Although it was a right of way and I could see no bull, only handsome, old English longhorn cows and calves, I decided discretion was the better part of valour and took the long way round, crossing the river by a narrow, elegant, single-span footbridge with a stiff, latched gate at one end. Standing on the bridge, half-hoping for an otter, the sense of being in a green, level valley surrounded by high moors was acute.

The sun was low now over the hills, and casting long shadows, but I remembered something I’d read in my research about the area in which the little town was described in 1852 as “cheerful at sunny mid-day, but dimly sober towards evening, for then the hills close in again”. I could see that darkness would probably come quite quickly when it came, but the route back was easy enough, so I decided to walk just a little further along the river.

I’m glad I did, for within a few minutes I had the triple: a kingfisher flew upriver, perched, and flew again, both the electric blue of his back and the orange of his rump ablaze in the golden evening sun. I was laughing now, incredulous and joystruck, and so it was hardly a surprise when I heard a loud splash and turned to see the pewter flank of a fish about a foot-and-a-half long breach the cloud-reflecting river, leaving ripples that lapped and glugged at both banks. And then another splash. And then another.

I’m not good at waiting to see wildlife; not everyone is. I like to walk, and be alert, and take in what’s around me. I like to try and get a sense of the life of a place, without staking it out. I’ve got a decent eye for detail and movement, and a keenish ear, and most of all, I’m curious and willing to stop for a while to see what something is. That’s all, though. I don’t often go out specifically to try and see a certain thing, because that kind of results-driven nature-watching just doesn’t float my imaginative boat. So when I’m gifted a glimpse of something – it doesn’t have to be rare, just something getting on with its own life, with no reference to me – it feels like a great and unearned privilege. I feel let in to the life of the world.

Exhilarated, I turned for home. I smiled all the way back over the bridge to where an angler was taking his rod from his car boot, an excitable collie and two small children playing with a football in the road. ‘There are some huge fish leaping just along there,’ I told him, pointing upriver. ‘Aye, they’ll be sea trout or salmon,’ he told me. ‘I landed a trout dead-on ten pounds last night. All the rain we had last week’s brought them up here, and they’re nearly ready to spawn.’

The teenagers were still on the shingle spit, a little louder now, a little more raucous. The little town, when I got there, was starting to have a Saturday-night feel about it. The church bells, one of them cracked and slightly out of tune, struck six as I let myself back into my little stone cottage, poured myself a glass of wine, and still smiling, began to write.