02 September 2014

Bellingham Show 2014

Show day last Saturday, and it was the best I can recall. The elements ignored the baleful forecast, allowing perfectly tolerable weather, and the public turned up in force. There was the usual array of displays, amusements and entertainment. To get the only negatives out of the way first, I starved for lack of any gluten-free sustenance. And the music in the main bar was of a kind calculated to keep the likes of me well out of an exclusion radius of no less than thirty metres. Apart from that, all went endearingly well.

My daughters bumped into most of the people they know. The races were entertaining. The right people won the music competitions, including the endlessly talented Ian Stephenson, who is now devoting a fraction of his time to the Northumbrian pipes. The Farmer went under-recognised with a third prize for the rather handsome hound he entered, but fortunately a tup of his had won first prize earlier in the day, so he was safe to approach by the time I saw him. 

A favourite of the day was the Cumberland wrestling. Very interesting to see the parameters applied at different age and weight levels, the good humour, the mutual protectiveness between the competitors. Not for the first time, Jason Davidson came off unbeaten in his own category and in the all-weights. 

31 May 2013


Yes, sheep!

But we haven’t turned into amateur farmers. The sheep belong to a neighbour - let’s call him G - who is not a farmer either, but a man of many parts. One item in his variegated portfolio of business, activities and animals, is that he keeps a goodly number of sheep. The professional farmers in the area may think G owns only a handful, but for us the number of his sheep is enough to populate our field with a pastoral presence and, more practically, to keep the vegetation down.   

Easter was, of course, a lively time. G showed much devotion tending to the pregnant mothers and, when they came, the new arrivals. Within days, the soundscape became dominated by a chorus of lambs. It would start very early in the morning and die out with daylight. We soon learned to distinguish between a routine vocal expression, a more urgent, presumably hungry cry, and, the one that required action, the cry of a lamb in distress. This was usually due to a little one getting its head caught in the fence. 

The first such incident caused me much alarm and, when my attempts to extricate the head from the fence proved fruitless, I had to run back to the house to call K who, coming from good farmer stock, knew better than I what to do. After that, I was able to cope alone, and a good thing that was, since there followed many instances of young creatures needing to be rescued from garrotting themselves. 

Even when not in distress, our new residents were the subject of much talk and interaction. The children, needless to say, were in a state of constant thrill at the course the events had taken in our field. They were good watchpersons ready to raise the alarm when a lamb was in trouble. And they were always game for a spot of conversation in or around the field with whoever, human or ovine, might respond to their tireless sociability. I suspect G's patience may have been tested to the limit by these overtures. 

26 May 2013


For much of the last year or so, Northumberland has looked like the land the gods wanted to destroy: ceaseless rain, thunder, floods, landslides, unseasonal cold and lashing winds; a varied arsenal of destructive forces was mercilessly discharged on us.

But not today. On this day the gods are looking down on us with gracious smiles, telling us that we are their children and this is the promised land. The sun shines bright and the birds sing hymns of praise. The colours are intense and the breeze gentle. The sheep hardly move for fear of disturbing the warmth. The lambs, usually quite loquacious, are mute now; what’s more, instead of their habitual frisking around they lie on their side, giving the scene an unnatural stillness. There is disbelief in the air; no-one dares do anything that might stir away the state of grace. 

30 September 2012

Full moon in Northumberland

Moon of Northumberland. If more people could see what I see, there would be even less sanity in the world. It can turn the most reasonable person into a berserker. 

It was a large, round moon hanging alone in the southwest quadrant of the sky’s vault at 1840. When a thin cloud slid across it, knifing it in two halves, the memory of Wozzek was unavoidable. The cloud gone, the moon shone in its primeval wholeness and it was again a casta diva, perfect circle, full of grace - the object of worship in Norma or Turandot. A virginal she - la luna - on the Mediterranean, a sinister he - der Mond - in Austro-Germany, the moon is a neutral, remorseless, glacial androgyne in these parts. A cold fire. A burning ice. Wholly genderless, but charged with sex, madness and unbounded strength. It is a fierce, wild force that’s flooding the field with silver flames out there. 

Oh, and on this clear night I could see the tree the moon must have been hiding behind last night. A thick monster of a tree, getting too tall and too heavy for its own good - an unpoetic reminder of how much there is to do around here. 

27 September 2012

A different night

Does Google’s Current Moon Phase gadget take account of your location? You would expect it to, since it knows who you are, and where you are. And yet, at this time in this place I should be seeing a Waxing Gibbous 95 percent of full, whereas in reality the dog and I, on our nightly outing, were only able to observe a hidden glow, with no discernible moon as such behind the clouds. 

The clouds themselves were a thin yellowish layer, far lighter than the thick walling that separated us from the sky for most of the last three weeks. A mist, one could say. Thin enough to let the glow shine through, as if the moon were a presence concealed behind a tree, or a shed, or a hill. But I looked around and there was none of the aura that would betray a hidden moon. 

Last night was different. It was a Northumbrian incandescence like the fiercest unleashings of lunar ferocity ever seen on these valleys. What a world of difference from one night to the next. Like being on another planet.

02 June 2012


One spring morning the girls, who had been playing outside, rushed into the house in some agitation to announce the presence of an unusual visitor on our drive: a snake. I went to check their claim, and found it to be true. 

The creature had a v-shaped marking on its head and an elegant diamond pattern down its back. It lay so still you might think it was dead, but the occasional slow stir indicated otherwise. 

Back in Bolivia, that kind of patterning and colour would indicate that the snake was venomous. I did not think such a thing was possible in Britain, but K confirmed that it was, and that it was called an adder. I knew, in theory, what an adder was, but had not expected to meet one at close range, let alone right outside my house.
As no doubt every reader of this blog knows - even though I didn’t - adders are common on this island. They come out of hibernation in early spring, which is when most sightings are reported. Our adder visited on 19 April, which counts as early spring if one remembers that the previous winter had been one of the harshest in memory.  The Forestry Commission tells us that adders are common in “rough, open countryside” and are to be found in “woodland edge habitats”, which is, I suppose, a valid description of where I live. 

If there is a snake you are reliably informed is poisonous in the vicinity of where your children are playing, what would you do? Had I been better informed, I may meekly have brought the girls indoors, hoping that this meeting was a one-off. But I was not better informed, and it was a glorious spring morning, and the girls had been having a good time outside until the adder arrived. I had not read the Forestry Commission’s clear description of adders, which mentions in passing that they are a protected species. I did what I thought I had to do. I did it with regret, and have since had much occasion to feel guilty about it.  

09 May 2011

Drought, rain, colours, smell

There has been the longest spell without rain I can remember. Last week, for the first time the canine walks ended with the dog's paws and my wellies as dry as they had been at the start. Dry! Having trodden on grassy soil! Inconceivable, but true.

The last three days saw the end of the good weather. This would normally bring a blanket of gloom over the landscape and over many people's mood, including mine, but this time the fields and the eyes seemed to welcome a bit of rain. There even was that smell, which doesn't grace British nostrils very often, of thirsty soil getting wet at last. I don't remember experiencing this away from Bolivia.

Early in the morning today, the sun was out in force again, and the colours had an unusual intensity. Bright, clean green on the trees and fields, glassy transparency on the river. And that smell again. They, too, reminded me of youthful days in the thin air of the Andes. I had to stand outside, experiencing the weather as an artistic happening.

Less kind readers may say that my middle-aged senses are tricking me with mirages of childhood. I contend that the weather is changing so much that some phenomena that used to occur only in southern latitudes are now taking place right here. And, alas, not in Bolivia anymore.

Take, for example, the adder.