The joys of living almost 800 feet above sea-level on the side of an exposed hill… An unusually constructive stint on my ‘Darwin book’ yesterday was rudely interrupted, without any warning, by a bolt of lightning which took out a telephone line outside our neighbour’s house. The ensuing electrical surge fried our landline phone, wi-fi hub, data bridge, and rather expensive colour laser printer. Miraculously, our even more expensive iMac computer and state-of-the-art hi-fi system, which were both connected to the same local area network, remained unscathed. Unlike my underpants.
It’s almost as if Someone up there doesn’t want me to write a book about Darwin.
At 08:50 BST this morning, the sun crossed the equator somewhere over the Indian Ocean, heading south, thereby making it officially autumn in the northern hemisphere. Official, that is, according to astronomical reckoning—which is the only reckoning that counts.
Well, I certainly can’t fault the weather forecasters. For a week, they’ve been predicting today, the last full day of summer, would be dreadful. A distant rumble of thunder followed by a heavy downpour before breakfast. Muggy showers interspersed with muggy mist throughout the day. Lights on at noon. The perfect sort of weather for enjoying Mark Cocker’s latest, A Claxton Diary: short snatches of nature writing in the form of a diary. I wonder if it’s a format that will ever catch on.
As I headed out for the Sunday paper, I was pleased to see our hawthorn hedge loaded with red berries. It’s only a hedge in theory; in reality, it’s a line of trees which has got out of hand. Someone really ought to do something, but I fear it might be too late for hedge-laying. The trees in our ‘hedge’ began life as bird-seeded saplings that took root in various unwise places in our garden. Whenever I came across one, I dug it up, roots and all, and transplanted it in our proto-hedge. Then I forgot all about them and Nature took over.
We took a quick walk around the lanes mid-afternoon. The views were non-existent, and everything felt clammy. Rooks perched on power lines, looking miserable. A tractor was spreading muck on the fields, its distant chugs dampened by the damp. Dreich, the Scots would call it: a word I always assume, no doubt incorrectly, must be a portmanteau of dreary and bleak. And then an incongruous treat: a blaze of light at the side of the track, a white foxglove in full flower. You’re leaving it a little late, my friend.
Another glorious late-summer day. A handful of long-tailed tits drifted through the garden first thing: always an unexpected treat. I spotted another late swallow heading south at speed as I returned from the post office with the newspaper. Might this one really be the last of the summer?
Took Rosie the reluctant cocker spaniel for a drag around Crow Nest Wood in the afternoon. Mushrooms were springing up all over the place. Most years, 21st September marks the proper start of autumn in the northern hemisphere, but, this year, the equinox doesn’t fall until 23rd. Unfortunately, today is likely to be the last of our sun-filled late summer, with thunder and heavy rain forecast for most of tomorrow.
A glorious late-summer day. Far too glorious not to head up to the Moor after breakfast.
There had been another fog-sea first thing, remnants of which lingered in the valley-bottom, slowly drifting away into the lower lands downstream. A waining gibbous moon hung semi-transparent in a cloudless blue sky.
As always, as I reached the stile on to the Moor proper, I inspected the new fence-post that replaced my beloved ‘Niche’—a former fence-post with a weathered, hollowed-out top, crammed full of plants (see my book On the Moor). I was delighted to see the new post was beginning to show signs of decay on top, and had a liberal covering of bird-shit. Perhaps it won’t be too many years before we have a Niche 2 post-top garden.
There were plenty of sheep grazing the moor-grass and browsing the heather, and I spooked a brace of grouse as I headed up to the trig point, then along the Edge, and down back along the wall at the edge of the Moor. No wheatears, but the meadow pipits were out in abundance. Little brown jobs. Such underrated birds. I have something of a soft-spot for them.
A sure sign autumn is approaching: a spectacular cloud-sea filled the valley bottom first thing this morning. Well, more of a fog-sea, I suppose. They’re pretty common around here this time of year. We have the steep-sided upper Calder Valley to thank. In calm conditions, cool air sinks into the valley bottom overnight, lowering the temperature sufficiently to produce fog. As the sun rises above the valley sides, the air is warmed, and the fog slowly dissipates. The best views are usually from Height Road.
Spotted a couple of jays flying through the woods above Booth. They’re less secretive this time of year, busily caching acorns for the winter. Not all the acorns will be retrieved, of course. I wonder what percentage of mighty oaks owe their existence to the hard work of jays.
A walk around the lanes with Jen in the evening. Rooks and jackdaws convened raucously in their hundreds in the trees at Ibbot Royd, arriving from all directions in loose formations, silhouetted against the sunset. A pair of swallows scudded past. Once again, I wondered whether they would be the last of the year. Over towards Stoodley Pike, a line of lenticular clouds graced the horizon.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.