Why do seagulls fly inland?

There’s a sinuous line of gravel pits shadowing the River Trent all along its confluence from the Dove in the north, to the Tame further south. They’re a two edged sword; on the one hand, an obvious physical blight, deep scars left from the ripping and destruction of diggers, tippers and tractors big enough to have come from a Transformers set. Meadows and farmland are gone overnight once they start; ancient trees, gnarled, cracked, characterful, part of your expectation of the landscape, levered out and shipped away. On the other, they prevent insidious urban creep and in turn create a new landscape, new habitats, and new life. Out of the flames a Phoenix rises, but in a different form.

The pits become lakes and find ingenious uses. From water ski centres, to nature reserves, to inland marinas with retail parks, short cuts joining them to the waterways, a honey pot of narrow boats. Others are left barren, hidden behind a stack of old shipping containers here or old army vehicles there. Some lie waiting for the grand promise of being the heart of a new village to be fulfilled.

There are many newcomers once the gravel lakes are formed: tree species I associate with dunelands, pines, young beech; and grasses, tufty and spiky underfoot. Swans move from a few families on the river to banks of them on the lakes; same too with Canada Geese. And everywhere there are seagulls, here, as far as it is possible to get from the coast in this island. Flocks of them land on the lakes and rise as one, like dust swirls stirred up in a desert; in the air, they hang, feathering their trim to become almost motionless before dropping in graceful arcs. Sometimes, but rarely, they give off their crying, coughing, bark but never with the abandon they do at the coast. These are Herring Gulls: with their cranberry legs and soft grey wings, but there are no herring here.

Screen Shot 2014-08-29 at 18_fotorMy daughter and I debated why they fly inland as we walked around the lip of one of the lakes. The gulls were showing off; swooping strongly, pulling out; shocking the moorhens. Perhaps there is an inland roost; a safer home for them to rear their chicks – but they’re with us all year round it seems, so it’s only a partial explanation, and probably fewer foxes near the sea. The weather was put forward too, moving ahead of incoming fronts, sensing the air, staying dry. But these are seagulls, as adept on the water as they are in the air: capable pilots, seamen and fell walkers. So why not food? Just as a feisty Gull who fixed me with a steely stare tried to steal my pasty one warm day at Mevagissey, why not gulls checking through the Kebab waste outside Spiceland, or for shards of chip shop detritus, batter bits or half crushed chips, they’re innards gently squeezing out onto the pavement, part crushed underfoot? Searching for the chips to go with their beer-battered herring.


August, 2012

Just the other week, I had a genuine shock, one of those stop you dead moments (if you are a person of a certain age at least): my youngest informed me that Blue Peter had finished. Blue Peter. Most notable perhaps for the combustible Advent Crown and early product placement in the form of the use of industrial quantities of double sided sticky tape (why could you never get it in Woolies?). I however, remember it for the tits. And starlings, and blackbirds and maybe, just maybe, a cuckoo. Every year, Blue Peter, in conjunction with the RSPB ran a bird count. The idea was that you’d throw ‘Supersize Me’ quantities of nuts and seeds on to your lawn then over the course of the whole weekend count all the birds. We used to squat in semi darkness in my Mum and Dad’s bedroom, binoculars to hand, peeking through a gap in the curtains so as not to frighten the wretched things, and work on a rota system, roping in all wings of the clan. We were highly democratic: there was no pecking order. Anyway, as it turns out, Blue Peter is now on the C Beebies channel. We can all sleep calmly in our beds.

Blasted sparrows. That’s my main memory. Small and dull, with a touch of brown on their brown bodies, set off by their brown beak and brown eyes. And they were fast movers with a pugnacity which meant they didn’t brook any nonsense from their winged brethren, no matter the size of adversary. They were like flocks of dwarf bouncers orchestrating the other birds around the feeding zone to their will. Or rather, to their quantity: no birds dared mess with the sparrows, because force of numbers alone meant they wouldn’t win. Sparrows ruled. End of.

Not today. Today you’ll be lucky if you spot a sparrow in your garden. The rise in the number of house cats is typically cited. I’m not so sure: admittedly, I’m not that attuned to cats but there don’t seem to be demonstrably more or less than a few years ago. And I don’t remember the last time I saw a moggy wandering around with a clutch of sparrows hanging from its jaws, ready to barbecue or enjoyed as a carpaccio.

Link this if you will to the game of ‘beer can market share’. This highly entertaining game is best played from a push bike. Essentially, as you ride along, simply count up the number and type of beer cans in the verge; keep a mental note and then convert to a rough market share at the end of the ride. Stella Artois, Carling and Fosters seem to be the main winners, unsurprisingly, with pockets of San Miguel or Kronenbourg, generally in more urban areas, and more surprisingly, Carlsberg Special Brew which no longer seems to be the ‘on street drinkers’ beverage of choice, yet remains popular, verge-side. Recently though, I have converted this game to that of Roadkill Counting. This isn’t some sick festish. It’s just come into my consciousness: there simply seems to be more dead animals in the road.   In a car you wouldn’t notice – let’s be honest, the animal is probably smoking the radiator as you hum along to Elbow and the kids in the back are distracting you from the badger you’ve just taken out.

And here’s cause of the sparrow decline. Pigeons. These are the new barrow boys of the bird world. Wheeler dealing for some knock off Trill and ganging up on the jackdaws for pecking rights in the manor. I know this. I know this due to the roadkill count. Pigeons are right up there you see, and truth be told it’s quite sad. For the artless pigeon doesn’t take death in its stride. No, the hapless things are generally lying, splayed in the road with a look of abject bemusement and surprise, rather like Arthur Dent reacting to the Vogons arrival on Earth.  And their wings seem to take on statuesque shape and proportion. One, just last week had managed to land on the road, pecking for some titbit I suspect, just at the moment a Landie came along with its rather thin wheels and took it out in a graceful body shot. Rigamortis quickly set in, leaving the bird’s wings protruding up in the air, as if ready for take-off with its body level with the road. Thor’s helmet came to mind.

Slide1_fotorBut there are no sparrows. There are badgers; hedgehogs (many); the occasional fox, pheasants of course (they’re the jumbo jets of the avian world – long slow take off. Alas, their flightpath is too often across a busy carriageway) and even birds of prey (mid swoop take out?). But no, the answer to the decline of the sparrow is this: pigeon eats sparrow; car eats pigeon.


A distant relative, an uncle at least once removed but more distant in terms of the knowing of him, I am aware of through story and hand-me-down snippets of information. Walter by name, a north countryman and bon viveur (some would say, a swanker) in life, lung cancer by death, steeple jack by trade. One story runs that to scare an ageing aunt he performed a hand stand on the blue clay ridge line of a 1930s terrace just off Canal Street.  I’ve heard tell that it was one handed. Embellished with time perhaps: but in essence, the lines of his saga weave consistently. A talented, braggish bloke, choppsy too; a showman, a great smoker, and at heart, a good man.  What’s certain is that he had a head for heights. Travelling around east Cheshire and south Lancashire repointing and repairing mill chimneys, brick and metal banded typically, 100, 200 foot high. Domestic work for cash, and for favours or back handers fixing up buildings with wind vanes and weathercocks. Once or twice he topped out church steeples – most often with lightning rods, less often with a Cross for light of a more divine nature.

IMG_2072_fotor50 odd miles away, today I live in the borderlands of Staffordshire and south Derbyshire, where the Trent, Tame, Mease and Swarbourne course across their flat, cobbled, gravelly confluence, snaking and splitting, the river banks edged with willow and ash; swans, wings arched back, hissing and spitting. Gravel pits shadow the river hereabouts where perhaps there should be levees, but as yet, no one has built on the flood plain so nature can feed the fields. Over the bailey bridge, tucking in your ears and edging gingerly, the ‘Derbyshire side’ of the river – actually a confusing hinterland where four counties intertwine – rises sharply as the valley cliff rises; the land has been heavily deforested, yet high hedged fields are verdant and rolling all the same. Occasionally an ancient tree stands sentinel in the middle, alone, proud. The villages are close-set and alliterative: Edingale and Elford, Haunton, Harlaston, Huddlesford. Their steeples too, rise sentinel – cleared of large stands of trees to block the view, they soar vertiginously, like poplars. At the bend in the road, the spire of Coton in the Elms stands out on a hilltop; from there, that of Lullington, hidden by yews close to, stands out clear, naked, beckoning; and from there, Clifton Campville, with its delicate spire of stone calls the eye like a comet with an earth coloured tail of mosses, liverworts and lichens.

Further north, the salty wind of the Irish sea blatters up Ennerdale, whipping the stands of conifers; their canopy swaying in unison like arms aloft as the ballad is sung. The fells rise quickly and rough here, drawing in tight, probing, pushing into the very heart of the mountains. The summits are on the bagging list: Scoat Fell, Pillar, Red Pike. One, cramped by its neighbour, is famous all the same; linked as it is by a stony and loose razor ridge, a gravelly, slippy arête, before a short, sharp clamber to a pyramid top: a mountain scribble on a beer mat. A child’s mountain. A mini Matterhorn, a Steeple of rock and scree.

Just the place, then, for a one handed hand stand.


One of our many rituals is Friday Pizza Night. It’s a signal; the end of the working week is here. An end to weekday patterns of snatched lunches or mismatched family meals. Everyone likes pizza: sitting round; a big knife; chopping big wedges unevenly, roughly, indecorously. From time to time, when time allows, we make fresh bases. Strong white flour, sieved and dusty, a fine veil drifts down by the morning. Greeny-yellow olive oil; flakes of Maldon salt and the magical yeast. To mix, we grab everything together in a claw, like a digger’s grab, pinching and squeezing, mud-flat mix oozing between fingers and thumbs. Not all of us love the kneading but I do and Em does too. Giving it some, elbows out, top teeth gently pressing into bottom lip as she pushes and folds and shoves and pulls.

Em had a pizza party for her birthday.  We made five times the normal amount and let it rise on top of the stove; a wet RNLI tea towel that’s seen better days, damp and laid across the oiled glass bowls. One hour. Two. Then a little pummel, divide and rise again. Down the cellar we left them, on metal baking sheets, loosely draped with cling-film, ten little bouncing cobs, creamy white, dusted with flour and the iridescent sheen of olive oil.

Godisgood.  That’s what the ale-wives called the wild yeasts they couldn’t see, assuming it was the hand of God. Godisgood: out of little comes plenty.  Godisgood: the invisible hand of a benign force, watching over us, keeping us, feeding us.

Next day: we lifted the latch on the angled cellar door and trod down the uneven stone steps. How do you describe the smell of Godisgood?  A brewery and fresh brewed beer, of course. But more than that: waxy lemon peals, unpasteurised cream and even, strangely attractive, a coat of fresh emulsion.  Now: no longer the Midlands cobs, but Lancashire oven-bottom muffins, flat and round, a hand wide and a thumb deep, pock marked by escaping gas, billowed out, nudging their neighbours.  We broke them apart, the kids flattening them with outstretched fingers; some flipped them, some threw and spun them.  Atopped by smears of pressed tomatoes, runny mozzarella, spicy pepperoni – all manner of treats.  The best pizzas ever?  Of course: Godisgood.

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Green Lanes

It is said that man makes paths; marks in the earth that pass through the ages.  For me, the opposite is true. The paths make marks on man; lines, etched in earth and etched in memory. Trod in, stamped through. Lasting through life.

One. The green lane to Tall Chimneys. Cuts down from the main road; high hedges of hawthorn, hollin and beech, bowl out, beer paunched. The road arcs down the valley side, descending into perspective, the hedges narrow it further. The lane, stony at first, rim-rutted and hobnail trod, becomes rougher still; and as it sesses down the shadow dappled bank, clinging on, it is more worn, escaping grit and cobbles slide away under foot, hissing and skipping away towards the brook. The verges, thin and feather-edged, soak up feet marks like moss or putty or ebb-washed beach; pliant, moist. At the breach where the pitch steepens, the green lane has cut through; not the cut of a knife or a digger trough, but of feet, of soles. Working boots, cussed and torn; northern clogs clontering & sparking on old river cobbles, long white scratches; Sunday School best, moving lithely to and fro, avoiding the holes where the skin of the lane has rubbed free. Trees overhanging, branch and leaf locked together like a children’s party game: elder and buller, rowan and hazelnut, fingers intertwined.   For the Horse Chestnuts they come, roots like flying buttresses propping up the steep soil sides; a mangrove in temperate loam.  A rope swing over the water; conkers like Morning Stars, or comets, with flying tails in the night.

Then. The green lane at Timbersbrook. The roads round The Cloud follow contours, from above, rings of ever decreasing horseshoes. Not the green lane; clambering straight up joining one road to another: a shortcut for people long forgotten, stopping before the steep face where we used to boulder. Lichen shod, mortar-free stone walls of uneven shards of black-flecked gritstone, furry with moss, topped by beech & ash. The lane, not green but grey, rutted, rocky, a river bed made by man. We drove up; wheels bouncing and skidding; tyres pinging with air-taught melody, the steering wheel turning unrestrained, bruising fingers, snapping at thumbs. My forehead, a damp coldness of fear. This was not my car.

Two of the green lanes in my head.

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