Wandering Words

Remains of Elmley Village MLP

Remains of Elmley Village MLP

Earlier in the year I was lucky enough to be commissioned by the Wandering Words project to write about the beautiful Elmley Marshes Nature Reserve. The website is now up and running and can be visited at;

http://wanderingwords.org.uk/

Along with my own thoughts on Elmley there are contributions from other Kent writers who have been exploring everywhere from the remote areas of the Hoo Peninsula to Sheerness High Street.

Wandering Words is a writing project and online platform that is putting the written word on the map in Swale & Medway.

By commissioning new writing about the landscape, architecture, communities and heritage of the area they hope to inspire others to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and share their work too.

You too can get involved, the project is looking for a wide variety of contributions, blogs, poetry, journalism, graphic novels – all are welcome.

Wandering Words is developed, managed and funded by Ideas Test, working in partnership with Rochester Literature Festival.

Later in the year I will be running a short nature writing workshop as part of the Rochester Literature Festival. Visit the Wandering Words website for more details on how to book.

A Good Read – Meadowland – John Lewis-Stempel

613pL0kjIPL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Meadowland – The Private Life of an English Field – John Lewis-Stempel

Meadowland follows the yearly cycle of a field in a corner of John Lewis-Stempel’s farm in Herefordshire. This, on the surface of things, would not seem a wide enough subject about which to write a whole book but from the first line we are transported down into the meadow with the author to watch the ice moon rising, feel the frost biting at our finger tips and watch the badger dragging his lame back legs across the field. The prose in Meadowland takes you down amongst the grasses and allows you to witness the lives of a host of creatures that live around this quiet corner of the English countryside.

Time and again in this book you wish to applaud John Lewis-Stempel’s patience and field skills. The hours he spends simply sitting and observing and recording those intimate moments of nature which can only be witnessed by long hours in the field. It is the detail that sings off the page here; a fox catching craneflies along with a flycatcher, a shrew rolling a slug into an appetiser, voles running from the brushcutter blade.

There are some subjects touched which are likely to rouse the blood of many wildlife  lovers and at times the authors shows a slightly schizophrenic attitude towards his hay meadow. He finds the foxes beautiful but would happily shoot them. He gently covers up a nest of field voles which he exposes during his hay cutting but downs a pigeon just as it performs a last swoop towards the safety of cover. He delights in seeing the badgers but is relieved that his borderline TB cattle are free to go out and wander amongst them. Still, John Lewis-Stempel is at least not hiding his views on such issues. He holds his hands up to being somewhat confused about where his loyalties lie. He admits that he has both hunted foxes from horse back and been a hunt saboteur.

This is nature writing which will stand the test of time. A book dip into to enjoy the turning of the year. It is a beautiful observation of wildlife in an unspoilt corner of the country and made me want to go out and spend more time simply sitting and watching and enjoying the everyday delights to be found on our doorsteps.

They Came From The Marshes!

Carol with presenter Mike Dilger and the crew of The One Show

Carol with presenter Mike Dilger and the crew of The One Show

They came from the marshes…a weird cackling sound that drove the locals mad and, from foreign parts, invaded Sheerness High Street.

We were talking about marsh frogs, those bulbous eyed amphibians whose calls sound like the noise a toddler makes when you tickle them but we could so easily have been talking about the crew of The One Show, who set up their cameras this morning in Sheerness High Street to interview me and two other ladies about our experiences of being kept awake by aquatic inhabitants.

Frog Chorus

Frog Chorus

Why Sheerness High Street? Well, it turns out people have been complaining to Environmental Health Officers about the noise of marsh frogs, claiming their calls are louder than the traffic in a busy urban area. I’m not so sure, as we filmed vans revved up, girls shrieked with laughter as they tried to get on camera and a women with the loudest sneeze ever shocked us all into silence.

Poor old marsh frogs, their love song is quite jolly in comparison.

Still, the crew were more than used to such antics and filming was over in a matter of minutes. My two seconds of fame will be shown to the nation in the next few weeks.

Dawn on the marshes

20150416-0003I did not jump out of bed with joy as my alarm clock rang at 5.30am. It is not the best time of the morning for me. I bumbled around the kitchen, knocking things over and shouting, “shut up,” at the alarm clock when it decided to ring all over again. But the moment I left the house I knew I was pleased I had made the effort.

It was pre-dawn, so few people see this time of the morning, less and less people I suspect, now that milkmen, early morning post, and paperboys are a thing of the past. I have signed up to one of the few jobs that require an early start, breeding bird surveys. All round the country at this time of year, other people are crawling out of bed, making flasks of coffee and dragging out clipboards filled with obscure maps of fields which they need to navigate their way through.

Possibly due to the early start the navigating proved a little tricky. Having received specific instructions from a helpful farmer I still took a wrong turn and drove my intrepid Nissan Micra down a sheep track onto the marshes. Just as I was struggling into my wellies, a vision appeared through the mist. A rather handsome, open shirted man on a tractor who turned to be the farmers son. Considering the hour and that I was clearly in the wrong place, he was very charming and directed me back out of his sheep fields and to the right spot. 20150416-0002

By the time I reached the first field, the sun was just rising above the trees and a thick mist lay across the meadow. Avocets took to the air, twenty beautiful, delicate birds with neatly held pointed toes, piping overhead. Lapwings could be seen, whooping and descending across the scrapes, plummeting earthwards calling their liquid fluting song. Redshank strutted between tussocks of grass, oystercatchers stared out across mirror calm pools in companionable silence.20150416-0005

 

 

I have been commissioned to conduct surveys on farmland across the North Kent Marshes all summer. I had been told that I wasn’t expected to find much. I had been warned that the early starts were painful, that the farmers might be wary, but I also knew that here was an incentive to get out to see beautiful sunrises in places I would never normally get permission to go. I have done many boring and difficult jobs in my time. I know when I am lucky.

By 8am my days work was over and I was back home cooking up a big batch of pancakes and looking forward to tomorrows early start.

It’s March but it’s not spring

coltsfoot

The coltsfoot may be blooming but it is NOT spring.

It was assuredly NOT spring. Despite the fact is was March, despite the fact I had fought my way across boggy paths to see the coltsfoot blooming, the icy wind scything off the Thames told me it was NOT spring. The birds thought otherwise. A cetti’s warbler blurted out a song from the reedy ditch surrounding Higham Marsh, lapwings were already swooping over the inland sea of flooded fields created by the RSPB. “It’s spring, it’s spring,” nature yelled at me but it was NOT. It was still the biting, cold ridden, hanging on til the bitter end dregs of an English winter.

A Close Encounter

This is how I normally see barn owls. photo - Ralph Connolly

This is how I normally see barn owls.
photo – Ralph Connolly

Tonight I walked across the RSPB Northward Hill Reserve, where I lived for several years. Enjoying the somehow illicit pleasure of a night time visit. I had come to see the crow roost, to experience the thrill of 4000 birds spiralling over head, but the secret ways I had once known to the roost had long since become a tangle of bramble.

Still the main reserve was open. I walked across the secretive, after dark world, spotting a silhouette of a roosting pheasant, a bulky, long-tailed blob doing a poor job of hiding in a tree. The marshes opened out below me, a watery fenland of flooded fields.

The hide was pitch black but I found the bench and the window catch and poured a hot drink from my flask. Widgeon piped, the full moon stippled the water, shining it’s torch beam onto the wrinkled skin of the surface. I took a sip of hot chocolate, the darkness edged in across the marshes.

A barn owl appeared. For a moment in hovered in front of the hide window, maybe mistaking it for a barn or a box where it could spend the night. Angel winged, black eyed, it seemed suspended in the air only a foot from my face.

A chill of fear ran through me, that moment in the dark when you are brought back to the primeval root of things and realise that you are too close to a fellow predator.

I knew barn owls. I spent the summer plucking them from boxes so they could be ringed. I knew the strength of those clawed feet, the damage they could inflict. For a moment I thought it would land, on the ledge, inches from my face. For a moment it thought the same. It was a second of indecision as it tried to make out what creature those two eyes, sandwiched between hat and scarf, gazing out of the dark box, belonged to.

It realised it’s mistake in time and wheeled away to land on a fence post. We both paused to recover from our shock and then it was gone, across the flood, searching for voles to get it through the cold night ahead.

Back where I belong.

Only Debbie could invent a five prong marshmallow toasting fork. photo: Simon houstoun

Only Debbie could invent a five prong marshmallow toasting fork. photo: Simon Houstoun

Back out in the woods with my gang of volunteers, toasting marshmallows on a big bonfire while tawny owls called amid the trees. Mulled wine, baked potatoes and good friends providing the perfect antidote to an excess of Christmas shopping. Came away full of festive spirit. Hope everyone enjoys the season in whatever way means the most to them.

Estuary Life in The Mudlark

Estuary Life in The Mudlark

by MLP

by MLP

 

A preview of my forthcoming book, Estuary Life, is available in the Mudlark Magazine this month.

This is an excellent magazine produced by the Medway and Swale Estuary Partnership http://www.msep.org.uk/index.php

Download a copy of the magazine here:

http://www.msep.org.uk/download_file.php?download_id=50

or read an extract below.

 

Mudlark-aut2014 (1)-page-020Mudlark-aut2014 (1)-page-021

 

Book Review – The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane

Book Review – The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane

The Old Ways

The Old Ways – Robert Macfarlane

The jury is still out on Mr Macfarlane. Despite being lauded as one of the best nature writers of his generation, then I find it hard to fall in love with his style of writing.

I feel I should rate him, after, all Roger Deakin thought so highly of him he made him his literary executor and I applaud the way in which he has raised the profile of my much maligned home county of Essex, praising the desolate beauty of its coastline and the iconic Englishness of it’s seaside resorts, but, unlike Roger Deakin, Macfarlane’s writing just seems to lack the human touch or possibly a sense of humour, it is all so very, very clever and earnest.

Walking the Old Ways with him, while reading his book, felt, at times, a hard slog. Wading through a treacle of endless metaphor’s, scrabbling through geological terms. The fact that the book needs a 9 page glossary to help you understand it, says it all. It seems that, at times, Robert Macfarlane looses his way. Is he an academic or a literary writer? and , if he is a such a great writer, why does it feel as if he is trying so very hard to impress us with his knowledge? At times it just seems as if he is trying too hard, when he loosens up towards the end of the book he gets so much better.

I loved his stories of seeing a panther on the road at night after a long days walking in the snow or his experiences of ghostly presences at Chanctonbury Ring. He retold these events with admirably little fanfare and a dryness of style which made them believable and left you wanting more. Where this book really seemed to excel was when Macfarlane forgot himself and told the stories of others, particularly his account of the war experiences of Edward Thomas, then I became lost in the story and the writing, no longer fighting through cleverness but immersed in the landscape and the life of another.

The Old Ways has been praised to the hilt by many and was a surprise top ten bestseller. If you are at all interested in nature writing then it is a book to read just make sure you are prepared for some heavy walking.

Sentence too low for gamekeeper

A gamekeeper found guilty of killing 10 buzzards and a sparrowhawk with pesticide has received a 10 week suspended sentence and ordered to pay £930 in costs. Why suspended? To my mind it sends out the message that wildlife crime is not real crime. If the grim haul found at his farm is anything to go by then this man was probably responsible for the deaths of hundreds of creatures.

However, Judge Peter Veits it seems, is also frustrated that the law does not allow for prosecution of the landowners as well as the gamekeepers.

In sentencing he said, “Those who employ gamekeepers have a strict duty to know what is being done in their name and on their property. They also have a duty to ensure that their gamekeepers are properly trained and capable of keeping abreast of the complex laws relating to the use of poisons.

“In other industries, employers as well as the employee could be facing prosecution in such cases and I hope therefore that this case can serve as a wakeup call to all who run estates as to their duties.” He added, “It is clear that the buzzard population in Norfolk is increasing and this is something to be applauded and not seen an inconvenience by those who choose to run shoots.”

It seems that only when landowners and gamekeepers are handed sentences which truly act as punishment will the rogue elements of the shooting community take these offences seriously.