Friday, 21 July 2006

Life in Slow Motion

The snails live on the walls of my garden, hiding under the shrubs, or clustered together in the evenings on the living room window, where they gather under the edge of the sash frame. Are they watching the TV? On wet nights they can be found idly perambulating across the path, and in the morning as I go to work I see their silvery trails across the doormat, or on a plant pot or two. I don’t begrudge them the small amount of damage they do; for some reason I find snails quite appealing. Slugs, on the other hand, have little to recommend them; they lurk under the rims of the plant pots, lumps of slime and gristle that surprise your fingers when you go to move the pot. I find it odd that I regard them so differently. What difference does a shell make? The snails, I will admit, are great performers when, on occasion, I take them to schools. Set on the back of my hand, they soon come out of their shells and extend their long eyestalks, peering myopically at the children as if to say ‘What’s this? Who are you?’ The children, for their part, seem equally fascinated by their small alien visitors, and talk back to them.

Snails in this part of the world are usually found at the seaside. Most of the underlying native rock is granite, which doesn’t provide sufficient calcium for them to grow their shells; by the sea, they take advantage of the crushed shell in the sandy soil, taken up by the plants that they eat, and they grow to the size of golf balls. It must be a precarious existence in some ways, being close to the sea. After all, how many of us have gone out with the salt pot at night to put an end to crawling lettuce lovers?

The warm, damp weather has spiced up the lives of the snails on the walls. Yesterday Mum caught several of them flagrantly mating, moistly entwined amid the foliage. Snails love-lives are complex; they are hermaphrodite, so each fertilises the other. In courtship - for snails do choose their partners - they fire small ‘arrows’ at each other, reeling each other in on thin white thread until their bodies are pressed together. D-I-Y Cupid? Or have they been watching old westerns on the TV, in the evenings? Whichever, I wait for the eggs to appear, and a new generation of snails to make their slow way to the window pane.

Haar, Haar

So here I am, back home. While the rest of the UK has baked in record temperatures and relentless sunshine, my little corner of Scotland has remained cool and green. Driving north is like stepping back a few weeks in time; the tired greens of the trees perk up, the crisp brown lawns turn green, and the wildflowers rewind. The crops, being harvested at the beginning of my journey, are barely turning golden. Sometimes, if I travel up and down enough, I can end up with two springs, or two autumns.

Waking to cool grey daylight after two weeks of heat comes as a bit of a shock. Stepping out into a damp, foggy morning is like walking into middle of a pearl - a gentle luminescent glow as the sun tries to penetrate the mist. (Hmm - that image leaves me as the grit in the oyster - ah well!) As I drive inland to work the mist thins, becoming a fairly bright and sunny day.
It’s been a feature of this area as long as I can remember. Waking to the bull roar of the foghorn, leaving home in dank dimness, only to find that ten miles inland has been basking in sunshine. It’s the haar. The sea fog. It lies along this coast like a grey veil for most of the summer.

So why do we have the dubious privilege of this phenomenon?

When the air gets warmed up by the sun, as happens in the summer, it can hold a lot more moisture. When this is suddenly cooled, the moisture condenses out. Pass warm air over a cool surface such as the sea, and this happens; and the North Sea is cold. Believe me, I’ve been in it, it’s cold.
So fog forms. Add an on-shore breeze, and the fog is pushed inland, covering town and countryside indiscriminately. Now although the land is warmer, and this clears the fog, the breeze pushes more inland to take over - where I used to live, you could watch it ebbing and flowing like the tide, making its way up the fields, sneaking along the hedges until it was beaten back by the land’s warmth. So there’s a band of land along the coast that stays foggy. With a stronger breeze, or if the land is cooler, it can travel a long way inland, tracing cold clammy fingers up the rivers and glens.
Sometimes the sun is strong enough to warm the land; it burns through and the haar clears. Sometimes it doesn’t, and we spend our days in a strange shadowless brightness.

And the name? Haar - I’m not sure where it comes from. The word has a Scandinavian feel to it. South of the border, it’s called a sea fret, and locally in Yorkshire a sea roak. (Bird-watching one day at the seashore, someone commented that there was a sea roak. After a short while, a visiting birder enquired what was the difference between that and a normal rook….)

It’s a feature of the east coast, and is why the land stays greener, and the inhabitants paler, than elsewhere. And why we shout at the radio, when the newsreader talks of heat-waves.

Saturday, 15 July 2006

Humber Mud

To the south and east, there is water.
South is the Humber Estuary, a slow brown ooze; East, the cold grey blue of the North Sea. Where these meet, a long crooked finger of almost-land juts out into the tide, an ever-changing desolation of sand and shingle and mud. Each winter brings a realignment, a chance to breaking away from the mainland, and is followed by the need to rebuild the road that straggles to the end of this impudent finger.

The road itself is a patchwork of concrete slabs, some inlaid with old railway lines, and odd strips of interlocking blocks which can be dug up and re-laid, at least where there is sufficient land to put them. A single track, with occasional passing places and lay-bys, it connects the isolated lifeboat station and coastguard to the rest of the world. To leave the road surface is to risk grounding, and becoming stuck in deep, soft sand. High banks, covered in bramble, leathery grey-green sea buckthorn and spiny marram grass both protect the roadway and threaten to engulf it. Convolvulus twines through the scrub, turning striped trumpet flowers towards today’s blue sky. It’s not always so welcoming. There are gaps, views of the estuary. Wide mudflats shimmer with mirages in the heat, dotted with distant birds wavering in the haze. Oystercatchers probe the mud deeply with carrot-coloured beaks, triumphantly hauling out ragworms, a lone grey plover potters about mournfully, poking a shorter beak into the semi-liquid ooze for small crustaceans and shellfish. No wonder it looks miserable.
Curlews, longest beaks of all, stalk the outer flats, searching the deepest mud. A distant line of black dots out on the water resolves itself through the binoculars into a flock of scoter, black seaducks gathered together to moult their spring feathers. Surprised by a seal, they take to the air in a flurry of dark wings, only to land with a barely controlled splash a few hundred metres away.
On the seaward side lies the beach, lined with scattered concrete blocks – tank barriers – like children’s toys left out and weathered in a forgotten corner.
A slick of muddy water spreads from the river mouth beyond sight of land. Container ships wait out beyond the channel for the tide to turn, bound for Hull and Grimsby, or up river to Goole. To reach there, they will pass under the span of the Humber Bridge, 25 years old today and only just visible on the horizon.
At the end of the land lies the small community of Spurn – houses, for the lifeboat men permanently stationed here; the road is too risky to rely on its being passable during a storm when they might be needed. The old lighthouse and landward tower now are home only to pigeons.

Wending our way back along the track, we come across a patch of sea holly, crisp silver grey-green, flowers tinged with electric blue. A survivor, like Spurn itself.

High Moor

Yorkshire is a big place. Not quite as vast as Texas, I grant you, but big enough to be diverse. My teenage years were spent exploring various parts of it, bird-watching along the muddy Humber estuary, hiking over the high expanses of the Moors; the rolling chalk of the Wolds and the boulder clay of Holderness are always a part of my childhood. Over the last couple of days, we’ve revisited some of these places.

North and west of Mum’s place lie the Wolds – a long ridge of chalk running from the bird-covered cliffs at Flamborough Head to the Humber Bridge, and stretching on south through Lincolnshire. To get almost anywhere outside East Yorkshire, you have to cross these uplands, once medieval sheep pasture and now covered with arable fields, barley and oats parched and ready for harvest under a bleach-blue sky. I wonder vaguely why there are no ancient chalk figures here, as there are on the Downs; perhaps the tribes that inhabited this area held to different gods, perhaps there were fewer regiments to carve out military memorials as they have around Salisbury, perhaps the land proved too fertile to use in this way. I don’t know. The chalk lies very close to the surface; some fields, overploughed, are nothing but pale rubble wastelands. This used to be an open expanse of prairie fields, a result of ‘big is best ‘ in farming, but more enlightened farmers have restored the hedgerows and shelter belts, there are trees again. Roadsides are billows of blue meadow cranesbill and violet scabious; candy-striped convolvulus makes intricate mosaic patches on close cut turf. Vast purple-blue fields of borage, a new crop for the new millennium, punctuate the pale gold of the cereals.

Coming down into the flatlands of the Vale of Pickering, (an old lake bed) we can see the moors rising to the north. A haze of purple-brown, lush green in the folds and gullies, they lack the homeliness of the chalk. From a gold-grey stone that makes for picturesque villages full of coaches and tourists, the land changes; harsh grey drystane dykes trace possession across the hillside, marking inbye from outbye, home farm from common land. Winding narrow roads lead up to the tops, through dales rich with greenery, flourishing oak and ash by the sides of the stony, brown-water becks; bracken, an unwelcome green invader, spreads from mooredge to roadside, and provides concealment for the sudden sheep that materialise in our path. We search for ring ousels amongst the tumbled stone walls, but find nothing but straggly rows of young rooks, dotted along the fence lines, waiting for food, and numerous woodpigeons. Pigeons have an odd, and annoying, ability to look interesting – disguising themselves briefly as falcons, cuckoos, anything – before revealing themselves with a mocking clap of their wings.

The high tops are wide open spaces, ablaze with magenta bell heather, patterned with the dark scars of muirburn. The lurking hummocks of heather-clad shooting butts mirror the rounded forms of the tumuli on the ridges, ancient burial mounds linked by the network of old tracks over the moors. Standing stones and old carved crosses mark the crossing of these ways, tracks used still by long-distance walkers. My feet remember long days and nights, hiking these dusty, peaty, muddy, stony trails.

We turn for home. Far away towards the sea, the distant carious tooth of the Fylingdales early warning radar rises above the heather, its truncated pyramid a degree more sinister than its three round forerunners. On Egton High Moor, we stop the car and listen. A contented buzzing of bees, the ever-disgruntled bleating of sheep, the haunting whistle of curlew building to a wild crescendo – does someone have to come out every morning and wind them up? (Sorry, dear, can’t stop, have to go and reset the curlews…)

You can go back.

Tuesday, 11 July 2006

Take Your Partner for the Hedgehog Waltz.

The hedgehog situation grows more complex.

Tonight, our small visitor turns up for her mealworms as usual, only to be joined after about ten minutes by another, larger, hedgehog.
He is slightly lighter coloured, and a bit scruffier - designer stubble? He feeds his face briefly, before his mind turns to other things.

He begins to snuffle at 'our' hedgehog, and they begin a long slow dance around the lawn. He snuffles his way towards her back end, she backs away, and they gradually go round in a series of small spirals, orbitting around the end of her nose. She sits down firmly, making a point; he snuffles along her side, she gets up and backs away, he changes direction - is he getting dizzy by now? - they swing like a small binary star across the lawn and under the azaleas. The bushes shake. The pair emerge, rotating back across to the rockery, and back once more to the azaleas. Is she really not interested or is she merely being coy? She certainly doesn't take the opportunity to escape when he briefly backs off.

They vanish again, and the bushes tremble. It's getting hard to see what's going on, and to be honest I'm beginning to feel a little voyeuristic. Mum peers out of the back door and comes in to report that they are sitting side by side under the arch that leads to the lawn, under a rainbow of clematis. Hmm. Has she succumbed to his rough charms? No - merely a brief break in the dance - they head off in front of the garage, still circling.

It's a long slow courtship, with hedgehogs. And a very careful one.

Wednesday, 5 July 2006

The Visitors

Hummingbird Hawk Moth – 3 Jul 06

Waiting for the bus, conveniently outside the house, we’re inspecting the shrubs that grow over the wall, debating how far they need to be trimmed back to prevent decapitation of passing pavement cyclists, and how high they need to be cut back off the ground to prevent dogs using the convenient cover as – well, a 'convenience' – when we notice something strange in the honeysuckle.

A hummingbird hawkmoth. Flashing subliminal terracotta red hindwings, soft beige and black-and-white-striped body, hovering beside the flowers, extending its long proboscis like a refuelling probe on a fighter aircraft connecting with the tanker, it moves with delicate precision.
Is this an indicator of warmer summers? We haven’t seen one here for over 20 years. We watch it working over the flowers, until it vanishes with speed somewhere over the garden wall, and the bus arrives.

Hedgehog – 4 Jul 06

Mum peers out of the back window, and whispers.
‘She’s here.’

It looks like someone has left an old coconut on the lawn. Snuffling about, minutely inspecting each blade of grass, each small patch of the lawn for the dried mealworms my mother leaves out. Heat and hard ground mean fewer worms and beetles, so every little helps. Almost every night she comes – Mrs Tiggywinkle in person - around 9.30 to 10 pm. Sometimes she lingers, but mostly she stays for about 20 minutes. Well, we don’t really know if she is really a ‘she’, but we make an educated guess. She’s small and neat, light brown fur edging a tidy bristle-cut hair-do, black-eyed and black-nosed. She has surprisingly long legs, moving with a rolling sailor’s gait. Trundling about like a small clockwork toy, leaving a trail through the grass, she disappears into the undergrowth of the flowerbeds, to reappear and cross the path before vanishing into the gathering darkness under the hawthorn tree at the bottom of the garden.

‘Think I’d better get some more mealworms,’ says Mum.

Sunday, 2 July 2006

Sneeze or Freeze...

The colours are changing again - yellow hangs on tenaciously in the form of fields thick with buttercups, and in the vast, almost indefineable range of dandeliony-things (OK, I know I'm supposed to know what they all are but a summer idleness creeps in - hawkweeds, cat's ears, hawksbits, coltfoot, and dandelions are just some of the range to select from), the white is there in the form of ox-eye daisies, but is slowly changing; the 'palest-maiden's-blush-to-hot-flush' pinks of dog roses, tall spikes of foxgloves in every shade from white to carmine, red campion, vibrant scarlet of field poppies, the red haze of grasses... it's glorious, but somewhere in it all is a lurking hay-fever trigger.

Driving whilst sneezing is a hazardous occupation. And driving for over 400 miles whilst sneezing is not conducive to road safety. Fortunately, the car has air conditioning, which comes complete with - fanfare - pollen filters! Which saved the day, but revealed a slight downside - you need to keep it switched on. Which is all very well when the sun is shining and its 20 degrees or so, but when it starts to rain and the temperature drops, being in the car becomes rather like stepping inside one of those big freezers in the supermarket. There is a likelihood of frostbite. But what is the alternative?

So this summer, if you see someone, on the hottest of days, driving around with the windows closed, wearing woolly gloves, hat and scarf... it could be me, avoiding hayfever.