The day began with a flash. A brown flash. Or should that be a streak?
Word selection has suddenly become much more important. I’d nipped back to pick up the metal watering can outside the back door, when a fair sized bird sped past me, dipping down, hugging the contour of the Cotoneaster covered bank and swerving to avoid my awkward silhouette with the can held prominently, westwards, as it headed along the side of the whitewashed building. Female blackbird? I thought idly, as I stood, mind momentarily disengaged. Perhaps 30 seconds later the swallow alarm calls drew my eyes skywards, in time to see the culprit – probably having doubled back after an unsuccessful snatch and grab attempt in the yard.
Bigger than a blackbird, but now in relaxed flight mode and viewed from beneath, plain to identify, rather than in its accelerating predatory sprint, straining for its’ prey. And since they can fly at up to 50 kmph, it explains why it seemed to me just a brown flash. Or streak. It’s surprising how often you find small birds on the open gravel of the yard – finches, swallows and at this time of the year, pied wagtails. 3 years ago, I’d described seeing the actual demise of a wagtail there, plucked from the ground as it was distracted by my conversation with a visitor. We’ve never fed wild birds in the garden, in part because we’re suspicious about encouraging this sort of predatory hit. This year a pair is nesting under the cowshed eaves, close to the big doors, and so, many times a day, you’re treated to the classic nest protection and distraction tactic of the parent. Stray too close and with a flurry of wings, the bird explodes from between the rafter’s ends, at eye level to your right and flies to the ground perhaps 10 yards ahead. You follow, and with a distinctly hunched, and injured appearance, it runs ahead of you, always taking the same route, across the yard.Pausing to check you’ve been taken in, and then down the cobbles in front of the house. Every time I’ve witnessed this ruse, just before it reaches the front door, and you’ve dutifully followed, keeping the same distance, it deems it’s fooled you and flies up, now relaxed, and sits bobbing on the slates’ drip line. To return to its offspring when the coast is clear.Thomas Hardy’s take on this bird’s wariness of humans, in his poem ‘Wagtail and Baby’, ends with:
A perfect gentleman then neared;
The wagtail, in a winking, With terror rose and disappeared;
The baby fell a-thinking.
By midday, we’d packed and were off to the Hay Festival. And the first talk we’d booked in to hear? Helen Macdonald and her much applauded book ‘H is for Hawk‘. Hay is a brilliant event for us, since it seems that for once the cultural buzz of metropolis UK decamps to this glorious setting nestling amongst the hills of border country – and it’s just a short drive away. Though with my Grumpy Hobbit hat on, I’d thought beforehand that it’s really just a good wheeze for authors and publishers to shift more stock. However, this was a riveting one hour of readings from her book and a sensitive Q and A session with the chairman of the judges for the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, which is one of the awards that the book has scooped.
For a taste of the event, do click here to listen to Helen describing the moment when she first met her new goshawk, Mabel, who was to become pivotal in the lengthy journey of restoring her life’s balance after the death of her father. Following on from this was an equally enthralling session with Robert Macfarlane discussing his recently launched book ‘Landmarks’ with Horatio Clare. The book includes a collection and dictionary of old or local words, from around the regions of the UK celebrating features of our landscape and natural phenomenon. It also highlights a worrying trend. Recent editions of the Oxford Junior English Dictionary have removed words like acorn, buttercup, conker, fern, heather, newt, otter, pasture (the list goes on), and replaced them with hashtag, broadband, bullet-point, cut-and-paste and voice-mail. In this book, Robert explores the notion that these changes, involving removing words for the outdoor and natural, and replacing them with those for the indoor and virtual, are a reflection of the simulated lives many of us increasingly live – particularly youngsters. More than this though, it’s a celebration of language and our landscapes. And there in the middle of the talk and discussion with Horatio Clare, was another hawk for the day. A peregrine falcon. And an even more amazing coincidence of timing. But do click here, to let Robert explain the details of the peregrine’s sighting, and admire his wonderful literary device of describing the event in 3 different layers of literary clarity.
Then, after racing out of the big tent, and joining the short queue, we managed to get a copy signed in an appropriate way. And delightful to finally meet him, since he’d been very generous years ago, in reviewing my film ‘Epiphany In Translation’, based around my brother, Mark’s, poem. This small endorsement was, at the time, a huge boost to my subsequent creative endeavours, and Mark had indeed been one of Robert’s English tutors in Oxford. And Robert is clearly held in very high regard by his readership – an hour and a half later he was still signing his books, with a queue stretching to the tent’s door. And I shall record here that an iconic pied wagtail created an important bit part towards the end of my film – only obvious to me once I was editing the scene where Mark reads his poem. A wagtail was sitting on the chimney pot, for fully 3 minutes, as though listening intently. As Mark paused for effect before the final stanza, the little bird bobbed down, and hovered momentarily like a little Tinkerbell fairy, just in front of him, before leaving the scene stage right.Just thinking again about this, as I write, brings the airs on the back of my neck up.
With a planned cottage garden group trip to Monmouthshire the following day, we’d opted to stay at a B and B in Crickhowell overnight, and thanks to Fiona’s choice, breakfast conversation with Sue our hostess the following morning, turned, and I really can’t remember how, to the subject of hobbits. Sue had for a time been the Brecon Beacons tourism ambassador, and so was able to inform us that JRR Tolkien wrote some of the text for ‘Lord of The Rings‘ (LOTR) whilst staying at the nearby Buckland Hall, and that Crickhollow, which also features as a place name in his text, is a thinly veiled corruption of the town we were staying in. I later discovered that Tolkien was in fact born in South Africa, leaving at the age of 4 after his father’s early death, with few memories other than an encounter with a big spider. He later became an incredible linguist, and even though his teenage years were based in the West Midlands, Welsh and Finnish became his two most favourite languages. These later were pivotal in him creating his own Elvish language, which subsequently in a slightly strange route, led him to create the complex history and landscapes that developed into the Hobbit, and later in more detail, the Lord of The Rings. Click here for more from the Tolkien society. In our days of weekend trips from Bristol to West Wales and back in the early 2000’s, we frequently had Howard Shore’s fabulous LOTR sound track playing as we drove through the majestic scenery surrounding Crickhowell, Bwlch and Brecon, oblivious to how influential it had clearly been in the creation of this globally massive popular fantasy creation. Now we know. And so on to the borderline gardens visited. Firstly High Glanau, a privately owned listed house and garden (click here for limited opening time) with a fabulous wild flower meadow as a car park, stunning views towards the Hay bluff hills, and an impeccable setting for a house, nestled just beneath a high ridge, but surrounded by mature trees, bar the open views West, and formal terraces. And even a good selection of small plant nurseries selling unusual stock, at a rare plants sale. And then after a local pub buffet lunch, much more of a unique experience with a visit to the gardens at Veddw. (click here for opening times). The creation of Anne Wareham the self styled ‘Bad Tempered gardener’, and her photographer husband Charles Hawes, the garden again sits in a special location amongst dense woods and rolling hills – do take good directions to get there, or be prepared for long scenic detours on tiny country lanes. A selection of images will give a flavour of this visually striking place. A couple of weeks ago a flash of orange disappearing into a gap of masonry at the change in levels of our rear cottage walls alerted me to a redstart’s, Phoenicurus phoenicurus, nest. We’ve often caught glimpses of these small, smart migrant birds around the garden, but never before identified a nesting site so close to the back door. Camera at the ready, I quickly discovered that they’re not as easy to photograph as some other birds, so a camcorder time lapse was tried from above the bank. Then we realised that the near constant dawn to dusk sound, which we’d been hearing recently in our under the eaves bedroom, was in fact generated by the redstarts. I’ve always found phonetic attempts at imitating bird songs really tricky – a little like trying to use words to describe the taste of a wine. But after much experimentation, my best effort is a short, repeated Ttsoooweeeep, where the tone rises at the end of the phrase. Thanks to another birthday book, I discovered that the great poet John Clare, in his poem “The Firetail“, renders his attempt to capture the song as ‘tweet tut’, as follows:
Around the old and ruined wall,
About the dead and hollow tree,
The firetail’s ‘tweet-tut’ fretting call
Keeps up a teasing melody.
Click here for more on the poem.
I should add this benign, all day long, simple call does change slightly, when perceived threats are near, with the addition of 2 to 4 ‘ticks’ as a suffix. More on this later perhaps.
Eventually I twigged that by raising the Velux roof light a little, I had a chance to photograph the birds as they paused on fence, or catenary line, still managing to Ttsooweeeep with a beak crammed with insects, before dashing in, to feed the hungry, hidden chicks.
I shall end, as is often the case, with some photos of the garden in early, and remarkably still midge free, June. But not before returning to “Landmarks”. Along with the prose, and glossary of landscape words, Robert Macfarlane has left a couple of blank pages for the reader to add their own selections of words.
I’m also adding in my own glossary:
Buttercupboozer, as: another descriptive common name for Micropterix calthella, or the Marsh Marigold Moth, which can be found right now in creeping buttercup flowers in huge numbers, and
Meadowing, which I’m defining as: the simple activity of spending time outside in a wild flower meadow. Whether working, observing, dreaming or just contemplating. A slow, action word.
If you want to read more on how the idea of meadowing came into being, then click here for a fuller explanation, on the Carmarthenshire Meadows Group site. A pristine Scarlet tiger moth, Callimorpha dominula, from our lower meadows.And an unknown snazzy bee. Ideas anyone?