11 September 2019

A spin out to Salts Mill for a surprisingly good pizza, some art, and a spot of retail therapy. Jen came away with a cookery book, and I bought a biography of Oswald of Northumbria, from the time the killjoys insist we should no longer refer to as the Dark Ages.

The main road over the Moor was shut, so we had to take a convoluted route there and back. As we reached the top of my favourite new long-cut at Wainstalls, a lone swallow flopped over a wall heading south. It was the first swallow I’d seen since we got back from Anglesey. I wonder if it will be the last of the summer.


10 September 2019

A walk with Jen along the lane to Old Town, then down past the mill, through Nutclough Wood, to Hebden Bridge for a lunch and a crossword at The Stubbing Wharf. The word ‘grenadier’ turns out to be an anagram of ‘re-reading’: who’d have thought it?

Rochdale Canal, Stubbing Wharf

A few autumn-tinted leaves drifted slowly down the canal. I love autumn, but I don’t particularly like where it ends up. I’m currently reading a review copy of Horatio Clare’s The Light in the Dark: a winter journal, in which he tries to be more positive about our most difficult season. Clare lives in Hebden Bridge, so I recognise the landscape and weather he describes so beautifully. Our paths have yet to cross—although we did somehow become ‘friends’ on Facebook. The book documents the winter of 2017–2018. I was amused to see Clare’s journal begins on 16 October 2017: a year to the day before I began writing these Sidelines, which I suppose have turned into a journal of sorts.

Is it really getting on for a year?


6 September 2019

· Anglesey ·

Our last full day in Anglesey. It was chilly on the rocks first thing, but very peaceful. A razorbill and a cormorant fished quietly in the bay. House martins buzzed about the low clifftop, occasionally converging for mid-air confabs. They’ll be off soon. I guess many of them have already set off: there have been noticeably fewer swallows and martins this week.

A quick trip to Beaumaris for chips on the pier. As usual, the gulls made a nuisance of themselves, so we had to hide in one of the rain-shelters.

Back to the rocks one final time in the afternoon. I sat on my favourite rock and gazed out to sea for an hour, until I was disturbed by gulls squabbling below. I tried to ignore them, but the squabbling grew louder. I stood to investigate, and realised the whitebait were in: the gulls hovered en masse above the waves, dropping down occasionally into the water to feed. Some whitebait had been thrown up on to the seaweed-covered rocks directly below me, provoking angry confrontations between greedy gulls. Alerted by the commotion, more gulls flew in, accompanied by a couple of cormorants. Then, suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, razorbills began to appear. I counted twenty, and a couple of guillemots for good measure. A little egret even put in a show—my first at the rocks. It flapped above a floating gull melee, its long legs dangling low, clearly tempted, but decided it was out of its depth and flew off to the far side of the bay.

The feeding frenzy lasted the best part of an hour. I stood on the low cliff, looking directly down on the action, taking photo after photo. I was particularly pleased to observe razorbills up close. Most of them seemed to be juveniles, with only a hint of their future, eponymous, cut-throat-razor-shaped bills. Despite the choppy waves, I could sometimes see the razorbills shooting back and forth beneath the water, using their wings for propulsion. Their similarity to penguins seemed uncanny, although perhaps it shouldn’t: the name penguin was first applied to the razorbill’s nearest relative, the flightless, now sadly extinct, great auk.

Razorbills

Once the frenzy subsided, I toyed briefly with the idea of returning to my favourite rock, but this birds-eye view of seabird action seemed an appropriate point at which to take my leave of the rocks and return to the caravan, after which, tomorrow, it’s back to Yorkshire.

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5 September 2019

· Anglesey ·

I was astonished to see a young woman performing yoga down on the rocks first thing. Fortunately, she’d had the common decency to set her mat down well off to one side, so it was easy for me to pretend she wasn’t there.

There was a more autumnal feel in the air, with the sunlight twinkling off the water a bit cooler than on previous days. Over the next hour or so, about a hundred Sandwich terns passed by, all heading in the same direction, into the wind. They’ll be heading south soon.

Hell's Mouth

After breakfast, we took one of our favourite walks along the clifftop from Porth Wen to Porth Llanlleiana. It was perfect walking weather: bright and breezy and not too hot. As always, we puffed our way up the steep climb from Hell’s Mouth to take in the view from the old lookout post, over towards Middle Mouse, the island known in Welsh as Ynys Badrig, on account of the British-born Saint Patrick supposedly having been shipwrecked there. The island is the northernmost point in Wales.

Autumn fruits were out in abundance as we walked back along the lane. I always count eating my first blackberry of the year as the official start of autumn, which means autumn nearly always begins, as it did this year, during the walk back from Porth Llanlleiana to Porth Wen.

Back at the caravan, I headed down to the rocks, where I found a seal bobbing in the bay. This particular ‘grey’ seal was a mottled brown colour. Go figure. It craned its surprisingly long neck above the waves to take a good look round. A longish, flexible neck will make catching fish easier: think cormorants, sealions, guillemots, grebes, and ichthyosaurs. I could see the seal’s ear, higher than you might expect on its head, level with its eye. I suppose this will make listening for stuff above water easier. No drag-inducing external ear, obviously, just a hole. Its nostrils flared, then snapped shut, like a pair of vertical mouths. I managed to take a few nice photos before it turned and spotted me, immediately crash-diving, never to return.

Grey seal

I pottered around on the rocks for an hour or so until Jen joined me, whereupon I announced my intention to teach her how to catch a crab. Having never been crabbing before, Jen was extremely sceptical we would catch anything with simply a weighted string and a smashed-up limpet on a hook. It might have been forty years since I last went crabbing, but I was confident we’d catch one in under five minutes—because crabs really are that stupid. Just this once, I was right and Jen was wrong.

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4 September 2019

· Anglesey ·

Down to the rocks again first thing. A heron flew out from the bay, low across a calm sea. I’m always surprised to see herons at the coast, but, then again, why not? Trying out unconventional niches sometimes pays off. When it does, longer term, evolution might kick in. Who knows, today’s opportunist herons might one day lead to new species of heron better adapted to littoral lifestyles.

A trip out to South Stack after breakfast. We took a battering from the wind as we made our way along the high clifftop, light patches and cloud-shadows patterning the sea. I shouted to Jen it was a good job the wind was coming in from the sea, as I wouldn’t feel at all safe walking so close to the edge were it blowing the other way. Jen turned and shouted, “Did you just say something?”

It was too windy for birds, although I did see a lone chough skimming off low across the heather, seeking shelter behind a rocky outcrop.

South Stack Lighthouse

We headed back to the caravan after lunch at the White Eagle hotel. For some reason, the car’s sat-nav decided to take us a more direct route on the way back, through winding country lanes. Before we knew it, we were heading down a single-track lane that gradually grew narrower and narrower. The road surface became rougher and rougher, then deeply rutted. Roadside brambles and branches were scraping against either side of the car, as well as the roof. It was all very Indiana Jones. I was relieved to have four-wheel drive with high clearance, as none of my previous cars could have made it through. I certainly wouldn’t have relished having to reverse a couple of miles down such an unsuitable road.

Down on the rocks in the afternoon, I saw the local inshore lifeboat heading off towards Red Wharf Bay. It returned a short while later.

Moelfre inshore lifeboat

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3 September 2019

· Anglesey ·

It was pissing down when I got up. Not heavy rain, but the driving drizzle I’ll forever associate with Anglesey. Anglesey rain, Mum used to call it. With the exception of the tropical rainstorm I once experienced in Hong Kong, it’s the wettest rain I know. This morning, it drove across the caravan field in sheets. Discretion being the better part of valour, I decided to give the rocks a miss until after breakfast.

There was nothing much happening when I finally got to the rocks. I watched a herring gull rootling around on a seaweed-covered boulder just out to sea. It eventually hit the jackpot in the form of a crab. I watched for ten minutes as it shook the poor creature, then banged it against a rock, until all its legs had come off—but not the pincers. The gull then repeatedly stabbed at the underside of the crab’s carapace until it had worked its way in, then began to feed hungrily. It was only a medium-sized crab, but I’m guessing at close to the limit for a herring gull.

Far out to sea, a pair of gannets gleamed on straight, black-tipped wings. You can always tell an adult gannet by its sheer whiteness—as well as by its size.

My gannet-gazing was interrupted by two deep, cough-like barks. Definitely not a seal. Almost certainly a bird. But not a call I recognised. There it was again, this time followed by a pair of much higher-pitched barks in reply. I scoured the nearby sea, and eventually spotted a pair of guillemots: parent and child. The parent was already sporting its winter plumage. I watched them fishing together for the next quarter of an hour. Every time either of them surfaced, it emitted a pair of barks, as if to say I’m here! At times, when they became separated by a hundred metres or so, the young bird’s barks began to sound more frantic, whereupon the adult would rejoin its offspring before continuing to fish. I dare say the young bird will be fending for itself in a few days. Good luck, little bird, little William, petit Guillaume, little guillemot!

Guillemot

In the afternoon, we took a walk along the headland at Bull Bay: my favourite Anglesey walk—and quite possibly my favourite walk full-stop. The weather was still overcast, but that was good enough for me, even though it meant there was no chance of our spotting the mountains of the Isle of Man today, as we did, to our great surprise, a few years back. The sea north of this headland was the first place I ever saw dolphins—and gannets. The headland itself is a popular haunt for ravens and choughs. No dolphins or choughs today, but there were plenty of gannets far out to sea, and I heard but didn’t see a raven cronking from a gorse-covered hilltop. There were also linnets aplenty, and a couple of wheatears. And there was gorse and tormentil, ling and bell heather, sheep’s bit and the copper-tinted sea: yellow, purple, and blue; the colours I shall forever associate with Bull Bay headland. It is a very special place.

Bull Bay headland

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2 September 2019

· Anglesey ·

Down to the rocks with the obligatory brew first thing. The sea was sparkling once again. I sat on my favourite rock, closed my eyes, and faced towards the sun. Pay attention, I thought. Remember this. The warmth on your face. The breeze in your hair. The red glow through your closed eyelids. The sound of the sea lapping gently against the rocks. The herring gulls crying far off to the left in the bay. Take all this in. Absorb it. Next time you’re feeling down, or a bit stressed out, or pissed off, close your eyes and remember being right here, right now.

Early morning down at the rocks

Floaters shot back and forth across the sky when I eventually returned to the visual world. I blinked them away, then took in the view. The tide was out, meaning there was shoreline rather than the usual waves through the gap in the rock-face to my left. Gulls and oystercatchers ambled this way and that on the wet sand. I saw one oystercatcher catch and devour a small fish in the shallows. I had no idea they did that. One enterprising young herring gull singled out a dibbing oystercatcher and tailed it. When the oystercatcher finally managed to tug an enormous lugworm out of the sand, the gull pounced. The oystercatcher, familiar with such tactics, immediately flew off with the lugworm still dangling from its orange beak. But the gull was not so easily evaded: it took off after the oystercatcher, harrying the poor creature until it dropped the lugworm on to the sand. A nanosecond later, the worm was wending its way down the thieving gull’s gullet.

I scanned the sea for a while through my binoculars, on the lookout for gannets and dolphins. None this morning. But that’s one of the joys of nature waiting: never knowing for sure what you’re going to see.

Suddenly a commotion. The gulls on the beach cried in frantic unison and flew low across the breaking waves, landing in the sea. They looked anxiously back at the shore, on high alert. Meanwhile, the oystercatchers had scuttled and flapped across the sand to take refuge in the seaweed-covered rocks at the edge of the beach. Through the gap in the rock-face, I couldn’t see what had spooked them—a dog-walker, I guessed. As I stood to take a better look, a female peregrine soared up into view, flying directly towards me, then disappeared somewhere beneath the rock-face at my feet. Look as I might (and, believe me, I looked), I couldn’t locate where she had landed—if, indeed, she had landed, rather than skirting the rock-face and heading off low, out of view.

It occurred to me afterwards that taking to the sea is likely to be a gull’s best tactic when under attack by a peregrine. It’s certainly far safer than being in the air, or on the beach. A dunking in the sea is likely to prove fatal to a peregrine. I wonder if taking to the sea when peregrines approach is a tactic young gulls learn from more experienced gulls, or if it’s something hard-wired into their genes. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Down at the rocks late afternoon, I fell arse-over-tit while examining a rock pool. I very nearly ended up in the damn thing, expensive camera and all. Inquisitiveness can be a hazardous trait.

Sandwich terns were fishing in the calm water just off the rocks. I was able to get closer than usual, and captured a couple of nice photos.

Sandwich tern

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1 September 2019

· Anglesey ·

Down to the rocks with a brew in my battered Dewar flask first thing. Sunlight sparkled on the sea over towards Puffin Island, silhouetting a small boat whose occupant was checking his crab and lobster creels. A couple of hundred metres away, Sandwich terns fished in the bay, the distant sound of their soft plashes lagging a split-second behind the visible splash.

Sandwich tern

After breakfast, we took a walk along the coast, past the lifeboat station and the anglers on the point, to the windswept northerly headland, with its familiar view across the bay to Lligwy and Dulas. Turnstones turned stones on the beach. My first wheatear of the year landed on a nearby rock and obliged me with a photo-op. Stiff-winged fulmars soared effortlessly in the updraughts of the low, limestone cliffs. When we reached the pebble beach where Mum found glow-worms as a child, a grey seal popped its head out the water and observed us quizzically before retiring to a safer distance. We walked on to the site of the Royal Charter wreck before turning back. Another wheatear, three whitethroats (lesser whitethroats, I think), a lots of late-season butterflies.

After lunch of home-pressed beef and home-made pickled onions back at the caravan, I headed back down to the rocks. A lone ringed plover hunched on a rock near the rocky beach. It’s been several years since I saw one. There were plenty of cormorants, as usual, and quite a few Sandwich terns making their way, along the coast, into the wind, fishing as they went, their young crying plaintively to be fed. I took many, many photos, one or two of which might turn out to be in focus.

A posh meal at the Marram Grass restaurant in the evening, then back to the caravan. On Facebook, my friend Karen in Maine had mentioned the aurora borealis forecast was looking hopeful. I’ve never seen the Northern Lights, so I looked out for them shortly before bed. No joy, but the Anglesey stars were doing their astonishing, dark-skies magic. Once again, I experienced a sense of invertigo as I gazed in slack-jawed awe up into the Milky Way, with its myriad stars. How can it be we’ve come to accept the paltry number of stars we usually see in the night sky as normal? When I am emperor, light pollution will be a thing of the past.

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31 August 2019

· Anglesey ·

While everyone else in the northern hemisphere seems to be banging on about autumn, we have arrived in my beloved Anglesey for our annual late-summer holiday.

We got here about 4pm. After we’d unloaded our stuff into the static caravan, I immediately hurried down the field and on to the rocks to check everything was still as it ought to be. Sure enough, the sea was still lapping against the rocks; the island off the point was still coated in gulls; Snowdonia, Puffin Island, and the Great Orme still crenellated the eastern horizon; a lone razorbill and three cormorants fished near the shore; and a couple of Sandwich terns were teaching this year’s offspring how to dive into the water from on high to catch fish.

Everything was indeed as it ought to be. So I sat on my favourite rock for an hour, gazing out to sea, with nothing entering my thoughts but happy memories.

Waiting for the tide

29 August 2019

The tree-feller finally came round to take down our huge leylandii today. We’ve never liked it. It cast a long shadow over our back lawn and, more importantly, our washing line. It was down in a couple of hours, but its disposal took far longer. While the tree-feller chainsawed the trunks and larger branches into hearth-length pieces, I wheelbarrowed them into a corner of the garage to season. It was hard work. I confidently predict my right elbow will ache for several days. Still, we now have plenty of firewood for the coming winter.

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