Leveret

The heavens opened last night. The water butts, which were pretty much exhausted yesterday, were filled right up to the brim and overflowing as the rain continued long into the morning. Then the winds blew in hot from the southwest, then the skies clouded over and a chill set in. Looks like we’re back to formula with a regular English summer once again.

I read a couple of articles in The Critic today. Oxford University in a bind over a Benedictine college. Simmering anger against the rising tide of wokery. In the news, US Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan against the wishes of the Chinese government, Beyonce changed the lyrics to her latest hit single after outcry against an offensive word and Big Brother announced its return. I could have added that the latter information was revealed at the end of this year’s season of Love Island, but the ambiguity is very much intentional on my part.

I quit the house for a bit, grabbing a worn Barbour coat and a pair of binoculars. Figures if I’m on the wrong side of history, I might as well look the part. Watching the swallows yesterday made me nostalgic for the long, quiet days of my childhood when I would set out into the countryside with my camera in search of nature. It was a bit warm for the Barbour, despite the clouds, but it’s a damn sight better for blending into the khaki hues of the English countryside than anything else in my wardrobe.

Lincolnshire seems to have quite a sizeable population of hares. You don’t see so many of these impressive creatures in the south-east. Being larger and more skittish than the rabbit, they don’t cope so well with how crowded it is down there. Neither the rabbit nor the hare are native to these islands. Both were brought over here by the Romans – for sport and for eating, if not for some early scientific whim. Our only native species is the mountain hare, and you’ll have to travel to the wildest parts of Great Britain and Ireland in order to find them. Ultimately, that’s neither here nor there: two thousand years have come and gone since the Romans were here, and the hares that race across the fields are by now as English as the oaks that have grown in our soil since time immemorial.

The hares I saw in the fields behind the house were only youngsters – leverets. They hadn’t developed the long and powerful back legs and enormous eyes that make adult hares so striking. They also weren’t as fleet-footed as adults, who will usually disappear in a black-and-tan dash into the middle distance long before you can get close. They let me approach further than I expected before deciding the Goldilocks line had been breached, and off they went. I followed, slowly, at a distance, and caught up with them by the sand martin colony. One hung back to watch me for a few moments before slipping through the fence and bounding after its sibling. After that, I climbed the fern-bound rise and scanned the forest for a while, listening to the wind in the trees and the buzzards calling. It feels good to be back in nature again.

When I get back home, I really must get back in the habit of spending more time in nature again. I’ve neglected this side of me for too long. At the end of the day, I love to try my hand at various things, but under all those layers is a naturalist. Life is a mosaic – you never lose who you were, or the people you’ve been at various stages of your life. You will always carry them with you in one shape or another. The largest shard in my mosaic is an earthy brown, like the soil; greenish-grey, like oak leaves; and bluish-white, like the sky. I need to go back to nature. I need to go back to being me again. BB x

They Bring the Summer

The year is turning. Can you feel it? The light in the morning has shifted ever so slightly, but it’s noticeable. We’re past the peak, and before long the red-gold winds of autumn will be upon us. Thanks to the fierce heat we had in July, some of the trees are already wearing their russet cloaks. I shouldn’t be surprised if we’re in for a long, dry winter this year. Perhaps that’s the way of things to come, perhaps not. Time will tell.

The family of swallows that nests in the barn near the house have had a very successful year. I counted eleven of them on the wires this morning: two parents with full streamers and nine noisy youngsters whose tails have yet to grow out in full. I had to count twice because of a sand martin who seems to prefer hanging out with swallows than his own kin, who have a colony in a field half a mile down the road. There comes a time every year, usually in September, when the swallows and martins suddenly gather en masse in a noisy spectacle before setting off for the south. We’re not quite there yet, no matter how abnormal this summer’s weather has been, but it sure felt like a nod to that day this morning.

Swallows, swifts and martins – collectively known as hirundines, which might have something to do with the Latin word harundo, meaning the forked shaft of an arrow – really are some of nature’s miracles. The tiny flashes of blue and white that dance over the fields with such cheerful abandon in summer travelled around 9,700km from their wintering grounds in South Africa to get here, and in the space of a few short months they have to make the same journey all over again in reverse, this time with their young in tow. Most estimates have them traveling about 320km every day. That’s a bloody long way to go when you’re only a few months old!

This morning the family looked like they were getting some practice in for the long journey ahead. Mum and dad would sit with the youngsters on the wires for a while, chattering amongst each other while the kids preened endlessly, before suddenly taking off and wheeling about the garden with their offspring racing after them. They might have been hunting, of course, but some of the young ones were far more interested in playing keep-up with a pigeon feather, catching it and keeping it from touching the ground, the way children sometimes do with a balloon. It was really quite endearing to see.

In the past, where our swallows went each winter had us stumped. There were some truly bizarre theories floating around. Following in Aristotle’s footsteps, some thought they hibernated underground. Some thought that they slept at the bottom of deep lakes and ponds, since they spent a great deal of their time hawking over the water during the summer months. One 17th century theory, courtesy of Englishman Charles Morton, claimed the Moon as the swallows’ winter destination as the only logical explanation for their total disappearance. It sounds absurd, but it’s not so outlandish a theory when you try to imagine explaining that these tiny creatures travel further twice a year than most humans will in a lifetime. It even makes the underground hibernation theory seem plausible!

It’s an incredibly hazardous journey, and not every one of our brave swallows will make it there and back. There are all manner of dangers they have to face: sea crossings, storms, high winds, predation by hobbies (consummate swallow-catchers), not to mention human interference – some will be caught for food, and the Maltese in particular are infamous for their practice of trapping migrating birds by liming fences. And then, of course, there’s the mighty Sahara Desert. Michael Morpurgo wrote a fantastic children’s book about that journey – Dear Olly – which you should read if you want an idea.

So why travel all that way? Competition might well have something to do with it. After all, Africa has plenty of swallows of its own (without all these European swallows “comin’ over ‘ere and takin’ our jobs” etc.) and fans of Monty Python will be well aware of the fact that African swallows are non-migratory. On my travels around Uganda during the rainy season (November) back in 2012, I saw plenty of familiar-looking swallows hawking over the White Nile, but most of the birds I clocked were local species that don’t travel far from home. Still, I couldn’t help wondering whether maybe just one of the brave little birds flitting by had crossed my path sometime before, either in Spain or the south of England. How’s that for a flight of fancy! <groan>

Greater striped swallow, Ishasha Lodge (Queen Elizabeth National Park) Uganda, 18th November 2012

Swallows are remarkable creatures to watch. While we still have a few weeks left of summer, try to find a few minutes to enjoy the little winged miracles. I’m sure they do wonders for one’s mental health, but to use less clinical terms, they sure can lift one’s spirits. Today, for the first time, I saw two of the youngsters doing something I’ve never seen swallows do before: sunbathing. Plenty of birds do this kind of thing to regulate body temperature, but it’s the first time I’ve seen swallows in the act. It was just two of them who kept leaning over in the sunlight – the others were far more interested in preening, though the sand martin looked as though he wanted to get in on the action!

One swallow does not a summer make, but their departure certainly puts an end to it! If you’ve enjoyed reading my homage to our chatty little neighbours, you might find the links below worth a browse, too. Until the next time! BB x
https://www.historytoday.com/archive/natural-histories/great-migration-mystery
https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/swallow/migration/

Greenheart

I’ll be frank. Summer is my least favourite season. Summer is, in the vocabulary of my students, “dead”. Most of the birdsong is over for the year, the whole nation is out and about and the holidays stretch on for what feels like forever (especially when you work in a private school). There’s a dry stasis in the air that you don’t get in the changeling months of spring and autumn and you’re too cold to notice in winter. This summer, as is tradition, I’m spending my time between watching documentaries and watching the clock. There’s not all that much else to do when you find yourself in the countryside far away from everyone you know.

There are, however, massive perks to being here. A few days visiting my parents in Lincolnshire usually throws up a chance to explore somewhere new, and though today’s ramble was more of a wander “round the back” than an adventure per se, it was a beautiful reminder that there are some things that make an English summer worth seeing.

Up on the wolds near Donington, I heard a quail. It’s been years since I heard one in this country, but once heard, you never forget. That iconic wet-my-lips call carries for miles, especially under a hot midday sun when the only other sound is the wind. It reminded me of the green riverbanks of the Dehesa del Banco, where the call of quails was just one instrument in a wetland symphony: percussive reed warblers, the accelerando snare of the corn bunting, the indescribable beauty of the bee-eater’s woodwind and zitting cisticolas going zzzzit zzzzit zzzzit overhead. It sure felt nice to be taken back there from the sunlit uplands of Lincolnshire.

The skies here are immense. The land seems to go on forever in all directions. You get a real sense of eternity in this vast corner of England. Little wonder, then, that so many Lincolnshire folk hoist the red and green county flag over cars, windows and doors. And yet, as is so often the case in England (and why I really didn’t take too well to life in Jordan), you’re never too far from a dark forest, which – admittedly – are especially peaceful places in the quiet summer months.

I tried to explain to my companions in Amman again and again the importance to me of green spaces. I think at the time I said I needed more trees, and was quite rightly told there were plenty of trees in Amman’s parks. But there’s something very special to an Englishman about the quality of light that can be found filtering through the trees in an English wood. Something about the infinite shades of green, alder branching over ash, ivy climbing up oak, a ceaseless communication from leaf to leaf, tree to tree. Little wooden fences put up by one of the country folk using fallen branches. The sound of the wind in the leaves: the way it chatters and whispers through the oak trees, and sings without syllables in the firs. Stop and listen the next time you’re near one and you’ll see what I mean.

It’s a magical feeling, standing in the dappled shade of an English forest in summer, and the loss of it in Amman broke my heart, I think. It was, perhaps, the time in my life when I stopped hating on my English heritage and came to appreciate the land where I was born – which, I think, is a stage we must all go through at some point in our lives. Not making peace with the establishment, exactly; rather, making peace with one’s roots. Learning to love the land that made you who you are.

Ten years ago today, I was spending my final childhood summer gigging with my funk band in an attempt to distract from results day. Two months later found me teaching for the very first time in a private school in East Africa. It’s been a colourful decade since then. I feel like I’ve lived around the world in my twenties: Durham, Jordan, Morocco, Sussex, Dorset, Lincolnshire and various corners of Spain. I’ve also found a real fondness for Edinburgh, reawakened my love for France and started a love affair with Italy. And while all those LinkedIn “so grateful for” posts make me want to throw up into my hands, I have to admit I’m incredibly lucky to have had such a colourful decade. I wonder where the next ten years will take me?

I hope She is out there somewhere. I never lose faith in that. And faith, as always, keeps one believing in a better tomorrow. For now, there is the English countryside and the sounds of summer. I can live with that. BB x

For the Glory of Jellyfish

Tuesday 12th July, 11.13am
Hassocks Station

I needed to get out. While it was ultimately my decision to come back south to my flat and cut myself off once again – and I stand by that decision – it’s all too easy to go stir crazy in here on my own. I was angling on getting out and seeing friends for a couple of days, but as my plans fell apart, I’ve had to take the reins myself. So I decided to strike out for the coast. Brighton always makes for good writing, that perfectly bizarre city.

It’s clearly a school trip day today. The train south from Three Bridges was absolutely rammed with saaf Landan kids in high-vis jackets, their beleaguered teachers sitting close at hand, identifiable for the throbbing veins in their temples if not by their lanyards. Standing room only. It’s kind of noisy in the gangway, so I pop my headphones on. The Spinners’ Rubberband Man cancels out some of the angrier verses the kids are throwing around from their phones. I don’t understand the unbridled rage in that kind of music, much less its magnetic appeal to kids. Give me the laidback fun of the seventies any day.


12.40pm
Brighton Palace Pier

Somehow it took me all of an hour to get from the station to the pier. Time slips through my fingers in a bookshop. It’s as though Waterstones operates in its own dimension. That could well be because I’ve become a lot more tactical when it comes to book-buying, taking the time to really get a flavour for a book before deciding to add it to my collection. As a general rule, any and all books on Spain (pre-20th century) go straight into the basket, but I’ve genuinely reached the stage now where if I don’t have it, it’s not worth having. There’s still a wealth of material out there in Spain in Spanish, but with Spain’s ludicrous stance on FBP, shopping for books over there is simply not economically viable. At the moment I’m trying to pick up my European reading challenge where I left off a few years ago, so I sought out a Ukrainian book to add to the collection today. I thought I was onto a winner with Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman – the forefather of Fiddler on the Roof – only it turns out, predictably, my mother already bought the book years ago. Still, no matter. That’s one more book I can feel better about giving away someday.


1.27pm
Brighton SeaLife Centre

Yes, I visited the aquarium. Don’t judge! When I was a kid I used to love going to aquariums – or the more ecologically-sound sealife centres, as they are so often called these days. Nausicaa across the Channel in Boulogne was a personal favourite, but Hastings’ SeaLife Centre came a very close second.

It was pretty much deserted. A large primary school group came in after me, but they never made it any further than the cafe housed in the original Victorian aquarium. I felt like a kid again and challenged myself to name the fish whose names I’d furiously memorised more than twenty years ago. For some crazy reason it’s all still there. From loach, tench and trout (easy mode), to snakelocks anemones, garden eels and corkwing, rainbow and cuckoo wrasse (standard) and on to pacu, Bloody Henrys and discus fish (hard mode). It’s a safe bet that the reason I had such a hard time learning anything in science class was because that part of my brain was stuffed full of animal trivia. If only biology had been about animals and not plant cell structure…! Who knows, I might have gone on to study it. As it is, I was bored stiff and let it go as soon as I could.

I stood and watched the turtles for quite a while. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a live sea turtle before. My god, they’re huge. Nature found a perfect recipe over 100 million years ago and decided ‘yep, that doesn’t need any more work’. Like sharks, turtles have been around for millions of years. Watch a turtle fly through the water and you’re reminded of how pathetically short our time on this planet has been by comparison. Only, these turtles looked a little stereotypic. One bit the other on one pass. Creatures can develop odd behaviours when they’re cooped up in small quarters. Maybe that’s a window into what’s happened to me in my flat this summer!

On to the jellies. I could have come here for the jellyfish alone. They’re absolutely mesmerising to watch in flight, pulsing slowly through the water, their hair-like tentacles trailing behind them. Another perfect life form that has seen millions of years of evolution come and go. Almost all sci-fi flicks imagine aliens from other planets as bipedal if not all-but human in appearance (Doctor Who and Star Wars are the prime examples), but if I were a betting man, I’d stake a fair amount on extra-terrestrials looking more like jellyfish than man. Isn’t it rather selfish of us to assume that ours is the perfect life form when turtles, sharks and jellyfish – hell, even cockroaches – have outlived us by millions of years? And on that note, I’d better clear out of here before I sell out mankind to the invading jellies faster than Kent Brockman.


2.58pm
Artists’ Beach

After nearly betraying humanity over a jellyfish and admiring the beautiful world beneath the waves for an hour, I promptly went outside, climbed the steps up to the palace pier and ate a battered fish with chips and vinegar. The irony was fortunately lost on the hoarse chippie vendor, who barely got the order numbers out in a grating voice. A group of girls next to me got their orders in after me, but somehow got their orders out first. £8.20 for fishcakes and chips seemed a bit steep compared to the £5.40 deal just 200 metres from the pier, but it was good quality, and since I barely managed to finish it, I didn’t have to wash it down with a tot of buyer’s remorse.

Brighton was packed with graduands this afternoon, red-faced and sweating in their full academic dress for the 28°C degree heat. If they opted for modesty, the other beach goers didn’t get the memo. British flesh on florid display, ranging from lobster-red to milk-white. A few lucky sightseers with bronze skin seemed to walk a little taller, but they were definitely in the minority. Lifeguards, street vendors and tramps made up the rest. Folk who have little choice but to soak up the sun.

Freeze frame. I pop the chip-box in the bin and look around – and really look. Yuppies in “gap-yah” pants and strappy tops. A lady in a wheelchair, and two women at the traffic lights who get to discussing behind their hands how she might have ended up there (the kind of curiosity my generation loves to hound out as aggression). Goth-types with nose rings, vape-sticks protruding from their fingers. On that note, cryptic vape ads everywhere (what on earth is the appeal?). A squadron of Korean cyclists suiting up on the sidewalk. A cormorant flying east along the coast. The indefatigable enthusiasm of the man selling rides on the motionless merry-go-round. A boy with what looks like rickets going by. The blonde girl in her thirties singing her heart out to a crowd of beachgoers enjoying a late lunch. Nobody is looking up at her.


3.35pm
Preston Park Station

The train home is much emptier, but I still walk the length of the train to find a carriage to myself. I pop the headphones back on as the train begins to pull away and Manu Dibango comes on. Sax City, Africadelic and Soul Makossa. Dibango was one of the victims of COVID two years ago. Like Marvin, James and Luther, that’s one more of my favourite artists who I’ll never get the chance to see live (or alive, for that matter).

During the Gospel Choir debacle, I spoke to a colleague and asked for their thoughts. They said they had thought a lot about the issue of music in a post-BLM world, and questioned even having been to a soul music gig as a white person. That messed with my head for months. It’s not that I don’t rate musicians who look like me, but give me a choice between Ed Sheeran and Fela and it’s Fela every time. Pop is catchy, but disco is eternal – it just keeps on giving, fifty years later. Folk is clever but Soul finds notes that folk just can’t. And highlife is surely a candidate for the most feel-good music genre on the planet. How can you deny yourself the chance to listen to such wonders on account of a feeling of awkwardness?

I’m all for better representation in the music industry. It needs it. I just hope we don’t end up carving ourselves up into islands where we can only listen to people who look like us, think like us, talk like us. And I mean that literally as well as musically. Social media is doing that already. It’s a dangerous path we’re treading, and I hope we can weather the storm that’s coming.

Would you look at that. I’m back to sermonising. I think I was doing better with committing acts of high treason for the conquering jellyfish. Time to go. Blppp blppp blpppp. BB x

Alpha Girls and Beta Men on the 13:07

London Bridge is quietly buzzing. I’m halfway through sandwich two of my Boots meal deal and watching commuters come and go beyond the glass. I can’t see many face masks anymore. The only masks I’ve seen in three minutes were worn by a couple of Asian women who got off the Gatwick train. To look around now, you might be forgiven for thinking the crisis is over. I wonder whether we eventually shrugged off the great plague with the same British phlegm.

Two twenty-somethings on the next aisle crack open a thin-tin of strawberry daiquiri and discuss the “right” way to shake a cocktail. A sweet synthetic hint of something that might once have been strawberry permeates the carriage for a few seconds, somewhere between the strength of a spring flowerbed and a subway urinal. A trendy man in dark glasses phases in and out of sleep a few seats along. A made-up mum scrolls through her Zara app and her daughter waves goodbye to London Town.

Graffiti lines the tracks. It daubs itself on every bridge, every sign and lamp post, every standing stone. Tags and words and call-signs in silver and black that make no sense to me, but mean something to someone, somewhere. Preek. Eo. Prydz. Busta. Cosa. DGMan. Looper. You never see them in the act, but the aerosol artists must work throughout the year, like Reebok-wearing shoemaker-elves.

The conversation shifts. The daiquiri girls discuss their thoughts about their respective partners and the foibles of men. “Don’t forget him, just think of him as, you know, that was a shiny boy you dated for a while,’; “He said that being in love is more important than being right, and that just didn’t sit with me, you know?”; “Mm yeah, that does sound a bit intense,”; “I just want to be in control all the time,”; “Me too!”

A yuppie asked to take the seat next to me on the train up last night. I noticed his face fallen slightly – that slight tightening of the jaw that I think is called emotional leakage in psychological circles. Perhaps I saw in it what I wanted to see, or perhaps I just saw a face I know too well. He was drafting a message in Notes to one “Alissa Bumble”. He struggled with one sentence, writing, erasing and re-writing the same words: “thank you for being honest with me”. His jaw twitched and he stared through his phone to the floor and into the empty space beyond.

In four months of experimenting with Bumble and it’s kin I’m more or less resolved to pull the plug at the end of the month. It was worth a shot, but I feel that yuppie’s frustration on my own level: it’s a soul-sapping task at best. I’ve seen that same quiet exasperation in the faces of many a young Tantalus on the train, now that I recognise that swiping gesture for what it means and read it like a book whenever I see it. Apples bobbing near, but always out of reach.

These social networking sites seem one and the same. One goes into the water like a fisherman and, though you could be sure you felt a tug on the line here or there, when you start to draw in the net you find your hands are empty. Maybe it was a missed encounter, or maybe it was a capricious twist of the algorithm, clamouring for your attention – and your custom. They play you like a lyre; Apollo in Diana’s hands. Even those connections you thought you’d made tend to disappear like so much dust in your hand. Again and again it’s the same hurdle online as it is in truth. Ambition gets in the way. Ambition for work and ambition for looks. It’s a game for the beautiful and the mirror never lies, and for somebody who would rather share stories than photos, the current of the online dating world flows like the Gibraltar Strait: close, tantalisingly so, but vicious and unforgiving. It’s been an interesting experiment, but it’s not for me.

The sun is shining on Crawley Town. A nuthatch twirrups from the canopy and the wind whispers through the alder trees. A robin is singing as the clouds roll in. The bluebells are out at last and a walk home through the woods is the best therapy nature can provide, especially when it rides off the back of a night spent in the company of such honest and kind-hearted friends. The world has been good to me.

Time, I think, for a spring clean. First of the flat, then of the heart. BB x

Venice III: Spirits of the Marshes

Three days in and I’m already a day behind. I guess that’s a good thing, as it means I not only had a packed day yesterday, I also had a busy sociable evening swapping stories with fellow travellers. It’s travelling done right, and all I ask is your patience, dear readers – such days make for good writing.


Wednesday was another make-it-up-as-you-go kind of day. I had it in mind to visit the smaller islands out in the lagoon – namely Murano and Burano – but as the vaporetto rolled up to Fondamente Nove, I suddenly decided to take a chance on mysterious Torcello, Venice’s predecessor. Most of the guidebooks pointed out it was almost deserted with very little to see other than an ancient church – the oldest in the lagoon – but if you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll know that’s one big fat tick in the box for me.

The lagoon feels truly vast once you’re out on it and Venice is behind you. Wooden struts stacked in threes mark what can only be described as water highways, giving the lagoon the appearance of a race course – until you realise it’s not mere practicality but also a safety measure for sailors, as there are multiple areas of the lagoon that are considerably shallower than they seem. Here and there, large expanses of mudflats rise out of the water, giving the lagoon’s waterbirds a place to retreat from the noise of the city.

The vaporetto chugged into Murano, city of glass, and then Burano in turn, city of lace and paintbox streets, but I spurned both of these for the diamond in the rough that is Torcello, risking a stranding for a chance to see one of the lagoon’s hidden gems. (In hindsight, I needn’t be so melodramatic – Torcello is surprisingly well serviced by the vaporetti, with a boat every fifteen minutes from neighbouring Burano).

Why come way out here? Easy. Torcello is nothing less than Venice’s ancestor, home of the first Venetians who arrived in these islands around the year 422 fleeing the forces of Attila and his Huns as the Western Roman Empire fell beneath fire and the sword. Guided by the visions of their priest, the refugees escaped into the lagoon, believing the great water would hide them from the Huns. They named their new home Torcello, meaning “Tower and Sky” – which is eerily apt today, as that’s almost all that’s left of what was once a thriving city.

In its heyday, some twenty thousand people called this island home, and it punched well above its weight as a centre of commerce and tolerance until at least the tenth century, though you’d never guess to look at it today. All that remains are some twenty residents, a few houses, some scattered allotments, a collection of Romanesque statues abandoned to time and an old church in the Roman-Byzantine style, whose bell-tower still dominates the landscape – the “Sky Tower” that gave the town its name. On a clear day you can just about see it from Venice itself, staring jealously across the lagoon.

Several factors brought about Torcello’s decline, not least of all the lagoon itself. Just as she did during the first COVID lockdown, Nature showed how quickly she can regain control when she wants to. Over time the island began to sink back beneath the water, swallowing up the villages and turning the once prosperous salt-flats into malaria-ridden marshes. Torcello’s disciples fled in the wake of the tide, seeking refuge on the other islands.

And then, of course, there was Venice herself. What was originally an offshoot of Torcello quickly took advantage of its father’s plight, absorbing its fugitives into its own ranks. Eventually, the son far outshone the father, and as more and more citizens abandoned their former home to its fate, the glory of Torcello faded into memory. The many thousands who once called this island home simply disappeared.

I had my lunch on a jetty east of the Roman church with four ducks paddling hopefully in attendance below. Venice is quiet, but Torcello is something else. Sure, maybe not so much that afternoon, as one of the locals had his radio on full blast as he scoured his fishing boat upriver, but I can imagine this place is as silent as the desert most days.

I’ve always been attracted to the desolate corners of the world. A childhood spent exploring Dungeness, Stodmarsh, Elmley and Doñana National Park has left me with a voracious appetite for marshlands that has never really gone away. So when I look out across the mudflats and listen to the cries of the shorebirds, my heart falls into step and I feel calm and content. But marshes are lonely places. I can think of few places in the world with a lonelier atmosphere. The mournful cries of plovers and sandpipers out on the flats give the place an eerie sadness. The gulls almost sound as though they’re laughing at you for losing yourself here. Solitary herons and egrets prowl the canals like watchmen. And of course there’s the mournful curlew, whose bubbling trill is possibly one of the most haunting sounds in nature. What unholy terror drove the first Venetians to such a lonely place? Their fear of the Huns must have been great indeed to seek to build a home out here in the lonely marshes.

As I leave the island, a thin dark cloud appears on the horizon, moving fast toward Burano. As it draws near, I see it is no cloud at all but a raft of pygmy cormorants, thousands of them, flying in a loose formation that surely stretches for half a kilometre in length. Like oversized starlings, they sail over the marshes, moving deeper into the lagoon.

Perhaps these little sea-crows are the perfect metaphor for the Venetians themselves. A creature of the land that took to the water, making himself a master fisherman, building his nest out on the lagoon. I’m not the first to jump to that conclusion either. A sixth century Roman official wrote of the denizens of Torcello thus:

You live like sea-birds, with your homes dispersed, like the Cyclades, across the surface of the water.

Cassiodorus, 523 AD

Standing on the forgotten shore of Torcello, it’s easy to imagine that the thousands of cormorants passing by really are the spirits of those first Venetians, making the same exodus from land to lagoon every morning for generation after generation, like the denouement to a tragic Greek myth: some cruel trick of the old gods, granting the refugees an eternal escape from their would-be oppressors. That such creatures should choose to haunt Torcello, the forgotten ancestral home of the Venetians, only adds to that mythos.

The outlying marshlands of the Venetian lagoon are full of such spirits, if you’re prepared to leave the bustle of Venice and its glass-blowing cousins behind for a couple of hours. If you truly want to see what Venice might have looked like before its canals become cloudy and green from all the water traffic, come to Torcello, whose ancient canals are clear as daylight, revealing a colourful array of sea grasses, seaweed and scuttling crabs on the silt below. And listen, just for a moment, to the ghosts out on the mudflats, knowing you’re hearing the same haunting sounds that the first Venetians defied to make their home here, over a thousand years ago. BB x

White Hart

This time tomorrow I will be in Venice, hopefully enjoying una cena veneta with a few fellow travelers, but more likely getting some rest from a busy day on the road (and a 4.30am start). So, as is tradition, I went for a walk in the countryside to bid adieu – or even addio – to the England I love, as it will be almost a fortnight before I return to this island.

I originally meant to get a breath of fresh air and nothing more, having spent most of the day inside, packing and preparing. But the darkness between the trees in the dying light of the evening pulled me in, so I decided to take an alternative route home through the forest.

There’s something intensely magical about walking in a forest after sunset. For some reason it’s never given me the shivers – at least, not if we don’t count that frightful wild camping episode I wrote about a couple of months back. With the light failing with every second, your sense of hearing intensifies: the crunching leaves beneath your feet crackle like a bonfire, and the alarm calls of blackbirds echo through the trees like klaxons.

If you stop and stand still for a moment, though, you’ll hear other sounds. The rustle of movement in the undergrowth. The drumroll wingbeat of a cock pheasant after his cry. The distant hoot of an owl. The footsteps of deer, not too far away.

I came across the herd in their usual clearing, where the poplars grow. I call it the cathedral, because of the way the trees soar into the air in four rows, their branches covering the sky like the vaulted arches of Canterbury. It’s also blissfully dark here in summer, when the leaves blot out the sun, and I often find the muntjac here. Tonight, the fallow herd were resting between the pillars – until they heard me coming, that is.

Even with my keen eyesight, the deer did a fantastic job at staying out of sight, though there must have been at least twenty of them, fading seamlessly into the forest floor the moment they stopped moving. Only one remained visible, shining like the morning star: the white hart. Look closely and you’ll see it, even in the shoddy resolution of my phone’s camera.

In British folklore, white stags are quintessential symbols of quests. Lots of children’s books feature white stags that can never be caught. If anything one ought to feel sorry for the beasts, as nature can hardly play a crueller trick than to make a prey animal absolutely incapable of blending in to any environment that isn’t covered in thick snow. All the same, it’s always a sight to see – even if our white heart hasn’t got any antlers to show for it. So I won’t be following in the footsteps of Saint Eustace and seeing Christ between its antlers. Not that I got close enough to see whether it really was Jesus or a chaffinch perched upon its head – the beast had enough good sense to disappear deeper into the forest as I drew near. Saint Eustace must have been a damned good sneak.

As for my quest, my quest is to rediscover the thrill of the open road once again. With my taxi due to arrive in only a few hours’ time, I suppose I’ll know soon enough. BB x

Seehund

2:45pm, 20th March. I’m sitting on a bench on Brighton’s Palace Pier, sheltering for a moment from the wind. A sign in front of me reads “It’s fun all year on Brighton Pier”. Somewhere down the coast to the east, there’s a few mad folk towelling off after a swim. The sea doesn’t exactly look inviting today. I look down through the slats. The bottle green waters of the Channel heave and swell about the centipede legs of the pier below. I wonder what creatures of the deep might be looking back up at me, besides the silent starfish in the silt.

Two men wander over to the parapet, gazing down at the beachgoers below. One of them watches in silence, nodding occasionally. His companion holds a recording device of some kind in his hand and is whistling a crude but not inaccurate imitation of the gulls. Is he trying to lure them in, perhaps? To what end? I can’t quite make out his game. He keeps it up the whole time, occasionally saying something in Arabic to his companion and chuckling, and then whistling his gull-call again. After a while, they move on, whistling. His friend must have the patience of a saint. You get all sorts in Brighton.

A few seconds later, a herring gull lands on the parapet. It’s not there for long, as a gang of girls in tracksuits race up the aisle towards the gloom of the arcade, screaming and swearing, sending the panicked bird into the air in their wake. Two scavengers in a truck trundle by in the opposite direction, trailing two heavy GLASS ONLY bins behind them. The planks tremble beneath my feet. I imagine, for a moment, the structure collapsing beneath its weight. In slow motion I see the bins rolling over backwards and a cascade of bottles plummeting into the sea below, some of them shattering on the struts of the pier before they hit the water. I have a pretty active imagination.

I move on up the pier, past the booming darkness of the arcade, which still seems to draw in a faithful clientele, despite the mobile lure of pocket entertainment. In fact, I’m actually pleasantly surprised by the absence of phones on the pier – for once, I’ve got mine out more than most as I take notes. Beyond the arcade, I reach a collection of outdoor game stands. Tin Can Alley with a bored-looking brunette in a red shirt waiting for custom. Dolphin Derby with an enthusiastic announcer who wouldn’t look out of place in a pinstripe waistcoat and boater a hundred years back. An Indian family points out across the water talking in a language that isn’t English. A couple walk past, hand in hand, one of them gamine with a grey-tinged ponytail over shaved sides and a nose ring, and her partner robust, black, ripped jeans and winged eyeliner, a rainbow lapel badge pinned to her sleeve. The air is thick with the pungent smells of Brighton: fish batter, candy floss and the distinctive damp tang of weed. The breeze coming in off the sea cancels out one of the three at a time, but not for long.

Behind the Tin Can Alley shack, a huddle of turnstones get some shut-eye. These often hyperactive creatures look out of place when static, and one wonders how they manage to get any rest at all with the thumping bass from the fairground rides at the end of the pier. It almost looks as though there’s a physical pecking order to the clan, and the ones at the bottom aren’t having much luck, hopping from strut to strut with remarkable dexterity. A passer-by sees what I’m looking at and stops to take a few photographs on her phone. The turnstones don’t seem to be fazed by me, or her, or any of this. After all, it’s fun all year on Brighton Pier. They’re probably used to it.

Nearer the fairground, an old gypsy-cart sits awkwardly beside the parapet, offering Tarot readings for a modest sum. Career, love, happiness and luck mingle strangely with Nestle, Astra Zeneca and Cornhill Insurance plc. I remember finding an abandoned gypsy-cart in the woods once when I was a child, its richly-painted woodwork fighting a losing battle with the forest’s silent army of moss, lichen and brambles. The gitanos in Tierra de Barros had no such fancies, eking out a living from beat-up cars and shabby tents. There is an old song of theirs I have consigned in part to memory, telling of their love for the Guadiana River, that came to mind:

The region of Chal was our dear native soil,
Where in fullness of pleasure we lived without toil,
Til dispersed through all lands ’twas our fortune to be,
Our steeds, Guadiana, must now drink of thee.

Gypsy ballad, translated by George Borrow (The Zincali, 1841)

I doubt the gitanos camped outside Villafranca de los Barros would know the song. It comes from an older world, much like the incongruous cart parked at the end of Palace Pier.

The fairground plies a busy trade for a chill-if-sunny Sunday in March. I feel like I’m walking through a childhood I haven’t known in twenty years, not since the distant summers in Dymchurch. Tea cups, log flumes and merry-go-rounds. A helter-skelter – see the Isle of Wight on a clear day! – painted up like a stick of Brighton Rock (or maybe the sticks are painted after the fashion of the fair). The static gilded horses on the merry-go-round look no less terrifying than they did when I was a boy. The ghost train reels in customers one at a time, lethargic, a chameleon in the cold. A father explains the “this high to ride” sign to his son, who is just a little too short for any of the attractions. I get the impression I’m snooping a little too much and wander away from the noise.

There’s a quiet spot behind one of the rides, looking out towards the mouldering wreck of the old pier. Seen from its sister with the city behind it, the Western Pier looks small and unimpressive. From the shore it looks a little more mysterious, where its mangled skeleton claws at the horizon like the blackened bones of a giant, mechanical whale, picked clean by the cormorants that sit on its ancient struts. In their oil-black funeral garb, they might as well be an extension of the wreckage. Brighton’s gargoyles.

Something bobs in the water closer to the Palace Pier, and without looking through any lens it looks too misshapen to be a buoy. It turns for a moment revealing long whiskers and those baleful black eyes, before sinking beneath the waves. I’ve been scanning the water all morning for that sight, and now I’ve found one, I can’t let the moment pass me by. I count the seconds. One, two, three…

Seals are such mesmerising creatures to watch. It could be their friendly faces, the way they seem genuinely curious about the world above the waves. For me, it’s all about their eyes. There are few creatures out there with eyes like a seal’s: enormous, black orbs that seem to see forever. You only see the whites of a seal’s eye when they’re really close, otherwise you might as well be looking into the dull glaze of a shard of volcanic glass. I used to watch them bobbing about in the waves from the white cliffs when I was a teenager, and once or twice I was lucky enough to see them closer still, lounging about on the mudflats of the Stour Estuary and snorting their indignation at the noisy ferry-boat off the Farne Islands.

Those were greys: hulking, dog-like beasts of considerable size, especially the bulls who came charging after the boat. It’s not hard to see why so many languages label the creatures sea-dogs, or sea-calfs, or even sea-cats. But unless you’re in the water with them, all you see is the inquisitive face, bobbing above the surface. The seal comes into its own beneath the waves. I should love to see one in its murky underwater kingdom one day.

Some creatures command the eye. The ghostly silence of the male hen harrier, or the aerial mastery of the kite. The sunken eyes of the fox and the stern gaze of the stag. I once sat in my bedroom poring over bird guides of Spain and the Mediterranean, bemoaning how drab our world was by comparison. With age comes understanding, I suppose. If the seal hadn’t drifted further and further out to sea, I could have watched for hours.

I spent most of my teenage years growing up on the pebbled shores of this same stretch of ocean. The salt breeze and yellow-grey skies of the Channel are written into my skin like age-lines. I should make a point of coming down to the coast more often in future, if not to blast the cobwebs of work aside with a healthy salt spray, then to find the writing material I’m always searching for. If I can find my way to a quieter spot than Brighton, I might even be able to sidestep the bookshops that always draw me in. Fortunately, I’ve been such a loyal customer to Waterstones over the last couple of months that I was able to walk away from today’s haul for a steal of a price. Just don’t ask how many books I bought – or how big the discount was. It’s all for a good cause. I’ll keep telling myself that. BB x

Death of a Bridge

There’s a great big mound of earth down in Downside Wood where the old bridge used to stand. The stream that once ran gaily beneath its mossy arches hiccups and lurches through two black plastic pipes, swallowed at one end of the slump and regurgitated out the other. The vegetation hangs back from the mire, keeping a cautious distance, thorns and nettles recoiling as though stung by the mud. Caesar’s legions made siege ramps that looked more sightly. At either end, where the track leads up and out of the forest, smoothed slabs of brickwork poke out of the mud like the bones of the bridge that was. The rest of the rubble lies buried deep beneath the mound, I suppose, making a barrow of the dell. Do bridges have ghosts? I suspect this one might.

I sat up in the branches of a tree during a break between lessons one summer, listening to M.M. Kaye’s Trade Wind and taking in the view of the bridge as for the last time. That was the year I saw the first signs of what was coming: a waterlogged sheet of A4 paper in a plastic wallet, fastened to the masonry by a tag, bearing the stamp of the local council. The word “SAFETY” written in bold black ink is all I can remember, smudged and blued at the corners by a couple of days of dew and rain. Safety… how satisfying it must sound to the inspector, and how terrifying to the stonework of the old buildings of the world. If stone could shake, it might do so at the word.

The world cried out in despair when Palmyra and the Buddhas of Bamiyan went up in smoke, reduced to dust by religious bigotry, but when I see the Great Slump in Downside Wood, I wonder how many other beautiful works of man and God disappeared under the councilor’s red pen without a word of protest.

As I looked down upon the devastation, a nightmare from my childhood came back to me: a scene from a film that haunted me so terribly that I remember every word, every brush-stroke, every note pulled from the strings of the violins. I’m talking, of course, about the nightmare fuel that is the 1978 Watership Down:

Holly: Our warren… destroyed… Men came… filled in the burrows… couldn’t get out… There was a strange sound… hissing… the air turned bad… runs blocked with dead bodies… Couldn’t get out…. Everything turned mad. Warren, earth, roots, grass… All pushed into the air.
Hazel: Men have always hated us.
Holly: No… they just destroyed the warren because we were in their way.
Fiver: They’ll never rest until they’ve spoiled the earth.

Richard Adams, Watership Down

I know so little of the bridge that once stood in Downside Wood. Was it only a fanciful exercise by a local mason for the lord of the manor, or did it have stories to tell? Did lovers sit upon its parapets before the ramblers and the cross country team tramped across its back? Did a poet or writer pause for thought over the archway and listen to the buzzards crying over the meadow beyond, before cigarettes were hastily stamped out into the mud as somebody saw Sir coming?

The bridge is gone. Safety and development swept it aside like so much that was beautiful. The old meadow behind St Aidan’s College, where I once saw a barn owl drifting in the evening air looking for voles, lies deep beneath a building site as the students choke the city. Like Richard Adams before me, I can only look on in dismay and add my voice to the thousands. There is a mystical beauty in the ruins of man’s work that is surely greater than any single life, if we can but look beyond our own existence for just a moment. These things around us, these rocks and trees, will be here long after we are gone, and will tell their own stories from generation to generation.

I hope that, one day, a generation will come along with mercy in its heart. It’s too late for the Downside Bridge, but not for a thousand other unsung relics scattered across this island. Not every fern is sacred, but in the grand scale of things, the world around us is worth more than a human accident. BB x

Half Time

Saturday afternoon finds me out on the side lines, camera in hand, supporting the boys. We put up a valiant fight and place third, thanks to a surprise goal and some seriously impressive goalkeeping. The ball comes my way at some point and I aim to block it, but apparently the ball was way over there and my leg was somewhere else. One of the boys saw fit to rib me about it in house later. I can laugh it off now as I did then. Football has never been my forte, or any other sport for that matter.

Working in a boarding school has got me more invested in sports than I ever was at school. There’s something magnetic about watching your charges do themselves and their team proud, whether they win or lose, that I never really felt when I was obliged to play the game. It’s not that my parents didn’t try to get me into sports when I was younger – goodness knows they tried their best – it’s just that then, as ever, it wasn’t in my interest. Which is why I’m here, not far off the age of thirty, and I still couldn’t name you more than about ten footballers at best. Somewhere along the line it seemed a great deal more important to consign to memory the sight and sound of every single feathered animal in the UK. I guess my excuse for stretching myself thin with the things I do – making music, speaking five languages, writing books and knowing my way around the natural world – might be construed as compensating for the fact that I could never do the one thing that comes naturally to most boys… that is, kicking a ball.

I can’t really remember a great deal about my sports lessons at school. If the truth be told, I’m pretty sure I used what cunning I had back then to wangle my way out of sports for good by the time I was sixteen. I think it was along the lines of “rehearsals for a musical” that I managed to stretch over two years. At least in my first year at school I was given an excuse when an angry sixth former stoved in a few lockers, including mine, with my sports kit trapped blissfully inside. Two memories alone remain: being made to play on through a blizzard in woefully short football kit, and the humiliation of being made to keep attempting the high jump until I was finally able to clear it – by which point it was almost level with the mat. And while I’d normally pull a face at using the same verb twice in succession, “being made to…” sums up my sporting experience pretty well. Understandably, this air-headed naturalist wasn’t ever really at home on the sports pitch.

Which is why it’s all the more surprising to me that I get such a kick out of supporting my boys in their games at the weekend.

Because leopards never change their spots, I turned my camera skywards a couple of times on the buzzards that came drifting over the pitch, as I once did during the summer fixtures a decade ago. Spring is here and the birds are pairing off already. There’s a part of me that sighs, but a sunnier, more hopeful side that smiles, and I cross my fingers and I hope theirs is a successful pairing. Successful being the appropriate word, since happiness seems out of sorts. We still don’t know for sure whether birds feel emotions like we do, but I’d like to think they have something close to it. You see hints every so often that they might: a swallow mourning beside its partner’s tiny body, crows sliding down snow-bound rooves, choughs hurling themselves from great heights seemingly for the sheer thrill of it.

It’s uplifting seeing the smiles on my boys’ faces during a game, and I find myself wondering whether that’s the same electric feeling you get after a concert, or from sighting one of our island’s most beautiful creatures riding the spring thermals. And now the sun is out again, I might just go for another heart-healing walk in the Weald. The forest weaves a magic that never dies. BB x