2.42pm. ‘Excuse me, are you familiar with the Starling routine here?’ I tell them no, but that I’m here for it too, and that I’d met a man earlier who said there were half a million of them exploding from … Continue reading
I was lonely so I drove to Mullion. I’d seen a picture of its harbour arms in a guidebook: they seemed like polished clamps that once served a purpose. The name ‘Mullion’ promised me that it was special: it had substance, made the tongue straighten to touch the lower palate, created space inside the mouth. I had wanted to go for some time.
On my way down to the cove from where I’d parked my car, a coal black horse in a field whose mane had been plaited and tousled like a human’s. It shone like graphite. There was something in its eyes that made me sense that it was wiser than I would ever be.
Along the sides of the road, wildflowers different to those at home. Despite living only twenty miles away from it, the Lizard Peninsula is a different land, toes a different climate. I take my phone out of my pocket, still awkward with how to work its camera. It soon comes naturally. When I get home, I learn that I have met Bird’s-Foot Trefoil, Sea Campion, Red Campion and gangs of Sea Carrot. The Alexanders, Bluebells and Thrift I knew from before, but they seem to grow differently here, fearlessly, perhaps. The Foxgloves sit up on the cliffs, backs straightened to look over the long grass. The Thrift grows in great numbers, gathering together and threatening to enact city-like sprawls.
At quiet, sheltered Mullion, the black cliffs absorbed light from the afternoon sun, brightening the sea, grass and wildflowers around them. The cove is still a working harbour, the arms still protect fishing boats that bring in mainly shellfish these days. Once, tons of pilchards would have been transported between them. An unmanned sign advertised seal trips and three boats lined obediently up at the harbour mouth. Beyond the harbour arm, a great rock with grassy shoulders and scalp where gulls made their nests; beyond that, some mile distant, another island. Mullion Island was uninhabited, a National Trust sign read.
I couldn’t stay there: all the best spots were taken by earlier risers, who stretched their legs from benches or rested their backs in grassy cliff seats. It was too small a place to idle and linger alone without being watched. So I walked along the coast path, from Mullion to Poldhu Cove two miles to the north, the path carefully gravelled and stepped. The wind a flood that sought to sear through me; it was at last balmy, and so insistent that I unzipped my top as I walked. I had waited months for the wind to warm like this.
I soon forgot my sadness.
And on my return, just as I was beginning to pay less attention to the flora I documented the first time round, the fauna came up to meet me: three baby stoats, gabbling and waddling along the path as if late for school. I thought they were going to bound into my shoes, but with two metres to go, six black beads stared up at me. Half a second was all I had to look into their strange eyes before I lost them to the long cliff grass. As I walked away I heard them for some time, yikkering near the cliffs, playing with their echoes.
The road to Maenporth, which has been shut for months, was temporarily re-opened over Christmas and New Year. On New Years Day, the very last day before the drills are taken up again and the yellow diversion signs are set back on roundabouts, we take our dogs to the beach at low tide. We put them in the boot of the car and settle into the front seats. The dogs bark excitedly all the way. I have my wellies on.
The beach is busy as we park in the beach car park. Dad opens the car boot – ‘I’m going to try and grab Maddy. You take hold of Sandy. I’m going to do this quickly, so one, two, three-’ and we each grab a dog. We clip leads onto collars, and when we are a little way down the beach and away from the road, we unclip them.
This is the best bit, because Sandy, our golden retriever, goes bananas in a way that I wish I could emulate when I myself experience joy. Freed from her lead, she bolts but cannot settle upon a direction: she runs towards a gang of black headed gulls which scatters and disperses into the cliffs; runs to the beach stream that cuts across the sand like a crack on a plate; runs back to us in loops and swirls, checking up on our progress, eyes glinting with craziness, tongue escaping from her mouth. Her paws print the damp, compressed sand with her movements, which perhaps replicate the direction of thoughts in her own mind. Maddy, the collie, is fully focused upon the ball which my Dad inserts with wet, sandy fingers into the ball launcher, and tears off down the beach every time that he raises it in the air and brings it down like a scythe. We walk to the beach stream and begin to cross it. The water threatens to break over the top of my wellies; the current is strong, strong enough to momentarily paralyse me in the middle of the stream with the fear that I will fall. We reach the other side without incident, however, and have to ourselves a part of the beach where caves can be found in the cliffs, where pebbles form concourses around much larger rocks and where rock pools are, for a few hours, exposed.
Sandy heads first for the sea, running over sand only recently exposed by the receding tide. Low tide sand is never land for long: in the hour in which it breathes in the open air, it is so saturated that a thin layer of water lies upon it like a mirror. As Sandy runs, two dogs are visible, one in this world and one in an exposed world underneath. I mooch around in the shallows and amongst the rocks, from time to time calling the dog to me, rewarding her with treats as I go. I take to standing in the sea, the waves passing over the top of my boots as the tide turns and they start the ceaseless tasks of cleansing and erasing. I watch as a trail of my own footprints are lost, then a deep scuff in the sand made by the hind paw of a dog taking off in another direction, perhaps after a ball.
My brow loosens and I uncurl toes that were gripping the insoles of my boots. Out on the horizon two great container ships, painted red and green, manage to look jolly. The sun breaks through cloud that for weeks has been thick and heavy with rain; so bright is the light that as I move back among the pebbles and the rock pools, I feel like I am walking in an Instagram photo. Reality feels more colourful, more yellow. It has been a long time since yellow has been here.
After half an hour, my Dad tires of slashing the ball launcher through the air. There is satisfaction written into the creases of his face: his eyes are more open than usual, and his shoulders are relaxed. The sea moves its way up the beach, shooing us inland, and we make our way over the stream and reach the car. Dad opens the boot – ‘come on Maddy, in’ – and shuts it.
We settle into the front seats, and as we drive back up the road, the dogs begin to bark. The noise rings in my ears and is so loud that it is all that I can focus on. It seems to hold something open all the way home, something that is trying very hard to close.
I was in one of the most westerly places on the mainland. That made me one of the last people in Britain – one of the last who were watching, waiting for it, that is – to see the sun rise on Saturday.
Before it rose, it made the hills glow. Two hills, that folded over each other the way that picturesque hills do. The sun, if it had been equally acquiescent to the picturesque ideal, would have risen between them, straight up out of the hillside’s crease. One hill, however, was glowing a little brighter than the other.
It was quiet as I peered out of the front door of Johny’s caravan. A flock of seagulls took off towards the sea as I did so, startled, soundless. Their silent kinesis, conducted at roof height, seemed eerily out of character as if Something had Happened. The air had been left cold by the night, and its chill made its way down my neck. I tucked my chin into my anorak. It felt like I’d opened the door onto a vacuum that the sunrise was shortly about to burst.
The birds’ bellies and under-wings were half-lit by a sunrise that hadn’t yet reached me. From the birds I traced my gaze to the top of the nearest house. Then to its satellite dish. Then to the parked van, and to the odd rugby goalpost on a nearby patch of land that was presumably someone’s garden. I leant against the doorframe and willed myself to fall into a wonder about how it was that I was there. How incredible, barely believable it was that I had indeed been brave and left the South East. Here I was, in one of the wildest parts of Cornwall, leaning against a door frame, staring up at birds. Twenty seven years old, hundreds of miles away from everything that formed me, hundreds of miles away from old friends, old familiar places, and being able to see the sun rise on an ordinary Saturday October morning in Sennen.
It didn’t work.
I tried again. I was after the dizziness you get after being hit by the momentum of the present. I think that some people call it ‘experiencing the Sublime’. I wanted to feel it. But it didn’t come.
This time, surely.
Come on now, look at this stuff. Marvel.
I wanted to feel something right here, here at the base of my throat.
Then the sun rose, heaving itself up over the right hill like I thought it would.
I went to work.
After Saturday, I thought about London, where I worked between 2006 and 2011. I thought about it more than I usually do. I usually think about the city in terms of its roads – its ‘outsides’, rather than thinking about the city as a collection of insides, rooms upon rooms upon rooms. I’ve never been good with road names, and I’ve certainly forgotten most of the names of the roads that haunt my daydreams and sometimes penetrate my sleep. But back in 2010, when I lived in Dalston, N1, I used to know them. I took up running as a serious pastime and ran around Islington, Highbury, Newington Green, up towards Finsbury Park. I would look at the road signs, note the postcode in the bottom right hand corner. Sometimes, I would run to Finsbury Park, run around it, then stop and look out at the city. The straight roads, the small family-owned shops and family-owned restaurants, the flats above them, housing Londoners like me. I imagined the insides to mirror the outsides: dirty and almost certainly decrepit. I wanted to see these insides. I believed they would be beautiful.
I had taken to running as a means of escaping how the city made me feel. Caged. Separated from nature. Lonely. Mis-fitting. I used to race through those streets to try and feel alive. Today, I keep catching myself accessing that memory, of me running and stopping in Finsbury Park. There were raggedy billboard posters, neon pink and orange-yellow, advertising a circus. A group of men played football in the encroaching darkness, for it was winter, and the sun set by half four. The path was hard, small sandy pieces of grit under my trainers. The street – Finsbury Park Road, it might have been – was glazed in soot and grime. The land rose up on its hind legs and I felt the weight of North London bear down upon that place. The city’s hard upper crust of boroughs and sub boroughs. The choke of Holloway, Archway, Enfield. The layers and layers of urban-suburban-sub suburban space, stuffed with life, the release road of the M1 a gullet down which cars crammed and were squeezed along on their journeys by the muscles of the city. There, deep in the urban underlayer, the traffic was relentless. The buses went past, and past, and past. I remembered my sex; I felt unsafe. I looked at the flats above the family-owned shops and restaurants and I longed to be somewhere else.
But where, I no longer know. All that remains of that day is simply the memory of being where I didn’t want to be.
I think of Finsbury Park now and I let nostalgia make the base of my throat tickle with ache.
“When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back,” writes Solnit in Wanderlust. Perhaps it was the distance travelled or the time elapsed, but once I left Brighton three things happened within the space of a few hours that made me reflect upon that sentence.
The first was brief: a sudden fear of disconnection with the coast. I boarded a busy morning bus from Brighton to Peacehaven, and within minutes felt anxious that I did not have my feet on the ground. I couldn’t tear my eyes off the coastline from which my feet had been severed; when the bus ducked inland briefly at Rottingdean, I felt a wave of irrational panic because I could no longer sense the sea.
The second was more substantial: a shaky reunion with the coast as I walked over the chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters. Land that was smooth, grassy and fairly level formed folds that were accentuated the closer they came to the edge, then were sliced short, like a block of Viennetta. The cliff’s verticality was picturesque from a safe vantage point, but unsettling to walk on. There was nothing in its face that would break an accidental fall. As at Brighton beach, I had an odd sense of the land being active; I dismissed it because the chalk underfoot was new and strange to me; I was used to granite. I began to climb up and into the folds, noticing that there were no signs warning people of the sheer drop. People sat close to their edge, chatting and eating, possibly dangling their legs.
Then the land stopped correlating with cartography. I came across concrete pillboxes that perched quietly on the land, collecting litter from previous visitations, waiting, perhaps, to be used again. They were not on the map, and the implication of this hit me as I recalled that I was coming closer and closer to France. Then, the reverse: on map paper heavy with orange contour lines, I walked over ancient settlements and tumuli, their age indicated by the use of calligraphy script. On the ground itself, I saw no trace of these features, nor felt their imprint under my feet. Recalling my anxiety on the bus, I stopped looking at my map. From now on, I would follow my instinct and trust my feet. This was when things began to go wrong.
The cliffs were tough. They tugged at my calves as I scaled one fold after another. I was sure I had counted more than seven. And I was tired; really tired. I noticed that each fold had paths made from ruts in the chalk, little white nicks in the thin, grassy scalp that would make the climbs more manageable. Perhaps they had existed for centuries, for millennia. My eyes dropped to focus on my feet. Then followed the head. Left foot, right foot. The rhythm helped my mind wander, it returned to Brighton beach and lingered there. Then a wick of wind brought me back to the present; still walking, I lifted my head.
The land had vanished. Only dark sea and light sky, two separate halves of blue.
My back foot on the edge transferring weight – the lifting of the front leg
Reaching for land that wasn’t there –
The backward stumble of the body, as it screamed at the mind
To step away from the ed
A feeling of calm would eventually replace the convulsive waves of adrenaline and the deep breaths, the shake in the hands and legs. I should have seen how the path I had chosen streaked, from twenty metres inland, diagonally towards and over the edge, a route that had once continued upon land long since lost, eaten away by the sea. My mind returned, its shock fading while it threw forward disjointed memories of Alton Towers, a page of a book I was reading, the sea kelp near Bognor Regis, and my parent’s bathroom.
I started to walk again, checking each step until there were other things to worry about. Light was beginning to fail. Bracken was thickening and replacing the grass. Mist curled over the cliff. I hadn’t yet reached Beachy Head, the famous suicide hotspot. I returned to the map, worked out where I was, and saw that I was near a road that would take me there in safety. I moved inland.
The road was deserted, sweeping through the down-land. I dragged my feet on the asphalt, my shoulders rolling forwards. Once more, my head slipped down. Then the sound of a car, and a flash of approaching headlights. I moved onto the verge. As the car passed, I read ‘Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team’ on its side. Its engine note dropped as it slowed, and I turned to see it pull up at a lay-by, where it could see for miles around.
I’d heard of a suicide patrol team that watched over Beachy Head, approaching jumpers and offering help. This had to be them. The car’s engine was still running; I decided to watch. Perhaps they had been alerted to a potential suicide victim; perhaps they were looking to see whether cars had been abandoned further up the road.
The car continued to idle. I continued to watch.
Something had to happen.
Then a window was wound down. Despite the mist, I could see the driver, a woman with her blonde hair tied back.
“Are you looking for me?”
Each word clear, enunciated. A gentle, imploring emphasis on the ‘me’.
“Me?” I placed my palm onto my chest, mirroring her clarity. I didn’t know what else to do.
“You were looking in my direction. I wondered if you were looking for me.”
She too had been waiting for something to happen.
The hand on my chest formed a dismissive wave, an act of bravado, almost, to make it appear that I was fine. “No no, I’m not.” I turned and started to walk, realising how I must have appeared: alone, lost, depressed.
I never did make it to Beachy Head. By chance, a bus soon came along the road, ‘Eastbourne’ on its front. I boarded it before I could change my mind. This time I did not look out of the window, out at the mist. I stared at the face of my mobile phone, waiting for it to show bars of signal, feeling a flush of relief when they appeared.
“When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back”: Solnit surely didn’t mean for her sentence to be experienced in quite this way, for her verb to darken and sharpen. Lying in a cheap hostel bed at Eastbourne that night, I listened to traffic outside the window. I stroked my thumb over the screen of my phone, held under the covers. I thought of the patrol car, possibly still out there, rescuing souls from themselves or from the land. I thought of Brighton beach, and I tried to sleep.
The following is an extract from my final Masters dissertation, written about my 80 mile walk along the Sussex coast in July. (The rest is, er, still being written…)
Brighton claimed me the moment I tilted back my head onto its shingle and heard the suck-hiss of the Channel working on the layers underneath. That shingle, pushed by the sea, piles up in a couple of increments like a set of stairs leading down to the shoreline: the further you walk down towards the sea, the greater the privacy from the city offered by the shingle’s layers. We were only halfway in, twenty metres away from the shoreline, our curiosity levels lowered by hangovers, yet as I lay there it was as if I were hearing the sea directly underneath my body as it roamed an underground cavern. No calm lapping, no sense of regular exhalation that I’ve come to associate with the shore. This was the sound of the sea feasting on the land.
Three of us had come to Brighton in order not to think. We’d been seeking pleasure in its more superficial and transient state as we sauntered through arcades and absent-mindedly browsed the emporiums. We’d drunk too much the night before, eaten junk food, bought tat from souvenir shops, and simply didn’t care that it was a Wednesday afternoon and that we weren’t at work. Why had we done this?
While my two companions threw pebbles into an empty disposable coffee cup with increasing competitiveness, I stared vacantly at the overcast sky and then realised that I had asked myself a question. I sat up, leaning on my forearms to look at the sea, properly, for the first time since I’d arrived. What I felt was a flutter of disappointment similar to what I’d felt that morning when I had poured a cup of tea in the room of our decadent, unhealthy hotel (with its licensed early morning bar, curly wurlys to accompany the sachets of tea and instant coffee, rock and roll posters on the walls). The tea had turned out the colour of dilute mud; barely a colour at all. A cup of tea in Cornwall was bright and golden, and as I stared at the Channel, I tried to find the right word for the similar sort of half-colour it was displaying.
I settled on ‘sunken green brown’. Hardly the sharp aquamarine of Kynance cove, or the teal-milk-blue of Falmouth’s bays when the weather was right. Yet thousands of people flocked to Brighton’s seafront each day. The city was grimy yet elegant, boisterously oblivious to the aggression of the sea, run down by the arcades (‘that’s what I imagine hell to be like – but with a carpet’, my friend had said earlier as we walked along the pier) yet hoisted up by the trendiness of the Laines. The fish and chips were a disappointment, people littered, the blare of music and the traffic along the city’s seafront road never let off – yet I didn’t want to leave. Ever. I couldn’t work Brighton out, its character of paradox and multi-layeredness elusively shifting identity with each attempt to understand it. It frustrated me, and it was then that I realised that it had seduced me.
I pulled up Google Maps when I arrived back in Cornwall and typed in Brighton’s name. It was the jewel in the crown of Sussex’s coastline, smack bang in its centre, with Bognor Regis to its far left, Eastbourne and Hastings to its right. Each seaside resort was a cast-on stitch threading a seafront road named the A259 between them. In some areas the knitting of these road-threads was neat and full: at Worthing, Hove and Peacehaven, barely a stitch was dropped along the grid-like patterning of streets. I couldn’t see the railway termini on the map but I knew that they were there, lines that sloped away from Southampton and London and ended at the Channel. I pulled up another map, one of the county borders of England, and raised my eyebrows to how much of the South-East coast Sussex claimed. It lay luxuriously underneath the affluent and London-tied Surrey, sharing its first two letters before breaking free with its double-s into that glorious suffix, -sex, heavily charged with the promise of excitement, energy, taboo and freedom.
It’s so easy to look at maps and spin hypotheses. To have the hunch I had formed in Brighton confirmed by Sussex’s geographical location: that it was close enough to London to pull in crowds and city culture, but not so close as to be eclipsed by it. To zoom out of the map and allow the North-Western tip of mainland Europe to creep in with each mouse click, offering another ingredient to the Sussex identity. To learn with excitement how the South-Eastern coast is continually blighted by long-shore drift: to read a sentence such as this – “South-Westerly storms and currents have carried debris from the West to build shingle bars and sand banks across the river estuaries to the east, blocking harbours and accelerating the setting up of river valleys” – and imagine a shifting coastal line that challenged a long-term rooting of identity as the Sussex people fought a losing battle with the sea. To suspect that this battle lies behind the Sussex motto, ‘we wunt be druv’, translatable from the now obsolete Sussex dialect as ‘we won’t be driven away’.
I decided that I would walk Sussex’s coast, casting my own line along the shore to stitch together resorts that the day-tripper often sees in isolation when making their ephemeral visits. I hoped to work out a sense of Sussex identity that would help me understand Brighton’s own; I wanted to sense what it was to live on a shifting coast. As I stepped off the bus that first day, I was carrying a mind full of preconceived ideas as well as a rucksack. Some of these ideas and theories would expire as I walked; some of them would hold to be true. And along the 82 mile journey I spent many hours wrestling with an elusive, shifting regional identity. I worried over the limitation of my perceptions, and felt a faint despondency that for everything I noticed and for every conversation that I fell into along the way, there would be countless things unseen and unsaid that would spin their own narrative of life along this strange and shifting coast.
Last week, Peninsula Magazine was published – a product of my postgraduate Writing course which is now winding down and coming to its close. My coursemates and I spent over six months working on Peninsula – from conceiving its theme, contacting our favourite writers to ask for contributions, liaising with copyeditors and designers to get it just how we wanted, and then getting it out there – in UK bookshops and as a downloadable PDF online.
The process made me fall a little in love with litmags, and realise how invaluable they are to the spread of good writing, and new writing too – something that I’m hungry for, more than ever. For my part, I interviewed Jay Griffiths, one of my favourite writers, about Wild, one of my favourite books. I was also fortunate to get other great writers involved, whose work and sentence craft continue to inspire me: Robert Macfarlane, David Lawrence, Matthew Oates, Kathleen Jamie, Jeremy Mynott, Mel Challenger…all of these writers, some whose work I read prior to making the decision to pursue writing more seriously, some who I stumbled across whilst completing dissertations for my course, all have given their words to Peninsula with generosity, and have made it eclectic, diverse and very, very readable, covering themes as wide ranging as footpaths, Antarctica, butterflies, London, birds, the paranormal, Glastonbury, road trips, Hawaii and Cornish policing. I also contributed some of my own writing, on pages 68 – 70, about returning to my childhood home.
There are very few print copies left (which, by the way, are free – we post them out to whoever wants them), but the PDF is available here.
I think you should click on that link.
Wheal Coates is a tin mine that stands on a North Cornish cliff bound by heather and gorse. Its mineshaft reaches down through the rock to Towanroath Yugga, a cave off Chapel Porth beach that can be entered into when the tide is out. Today, however, the tide is in, and the weather is foul. The heather lies low on the ground, as if trying to shelter from the wind and the rain. It’s a wonder that Wheal Coates still stands and hasn’t been blown into the sea, I think, holding onto my hat as I walk towards the tin mine’s silhouette, through weather that batters me, as if trying to force me back.
Wheal Coates dates from the 1870s, and was finally abandoned in 1913. Nearly a hundred years on, the site looks fragmented, as if the cliff had been bombed. Three engine houses still stand, their roofs lost long ago, their tips tinged back into life with the green of moss. All have cavities where windows should be: the tallest engine house has an uppermost window-hole that frames for me a patch of heavy sky. Elsewhere are low strips of wall, which, to my ignorant eyes, seem randomly built and abandoned half way through. The National Trust information board gives these fragments sinister sounding names: Calciner, Boiler Pond, Dressing Floor. Still, hundreds of people understood this land and used to come to this very spot to work in a world far beneath my feet. Men died down there, dying of injuries and landslides; many drowned in the dark.
It is the wailing of the drowning miners that you are meant to hear at Wheal Coates, coming up the mineshaft. I don’t see the shaft at first: I am too easily distracted by the colour of the stone that has been used to build the various walls. Blood red, with the occasional streak of white. It’s not noticeable at a distance, but up close, parts of Wheal Coates look as if they were built from slabs of red meat; gristly steak. More of the same stone covers the ground and paths: scattered off cuts. I slide a couple in my pocket, wiping the wet from my fingers onto my sleeves.
The mineshaft is covered with a metal grid, splitting its disturbing darkness into small, manageable oblongs. In one corner, part of the grid has been stretched and widened, creating a hole large enough for a dead miner’s forearm to reach out and grab a foot. Not really knowing what I am doing, I pick a stone out of my pocket and toss it into the shaft to gauge its depth. Poorly thrown, or swept off course by the wind, it clatters on the shaft’s sides as it falls, creating echoes and thus revealing nothing. I reach for my other stone but as I do, the wind mimics my actions, tossing rain into my face and whipping my hair. For the rest of my time on the cliff, it seems to pursue me, howling within the engine houses when I step into them. It knows the stones better than I do, and uses them to create unusual sounds. On one occasion, it creates a sound close to my feet that makes me stop still. Like it knows of an underground cavity, and is sweeping through it.
It doesn’t spook me at the time, because I assume there is a rational explanation for what I hear. But replaying it in my mind after I have come away makes my spine grow cold. So, too, does the stone that I find in my pocket, days later, whilst searching for something else. Now dry, its colour has paled to an anaemic pink. It is almost as if it has been drained of something, and I wonder whether the colour slowly changed, unseen in my pocket, the further I took it away from its cliff.
Sunday morning, early May, 4.30 am. I walk down the lane in the pre-dawn darkness with my guitar strapped to my back. It sits uncomfortably on the curve of my spine, and bumps against it with each step. The zip of the guitar case ruptures the quiet around me with a tinkle like breaking glass.
I am late; it’s already started. A robin was already warming up as I left the flat, and wrens and wood pigeons sing softly in the trees I now pass. Other birds are singing too, but I cannot identify them.
There is just enough light from the moon to see the gate leading to Lower Marsh Nature Reserve, where I have chosen to conduct my experiment. I cross the road, guitar bag chirruping, lean over the gate, and unlock it. I can just about pick up a silver ribbon of path in the darkness, beckoning me in.
The chorus seems to develop and become richer the deeper in I go. I find a place to sit: it’s not acoustically perfect, just a patch of bare earth by a fence that I will later find borders onto a pool of water. I unzip my case, taking out my guitar and my field recorder.
I feel for the recorder’s power switch in the dark. Its red light winks: it’s ready. I set it on the ground at a fair distance from where I am going to sit, not wanting to be too much in the foreground.
I sit. I wait.
I’m not even sure what I’m going to do, or how I’m going to join in. The chorus feels closed to me at present. I cannot sense any space into which a guitar could slip.
I close my eyes and listen to it build. I try to identify the birds as their songs bubble in and out of the chorus. I hear a blackbird wake and reel out a brief, emotive series of notes, stretching its throat as I would I stretch my arms and back as I get out of bed. It works on its song for a minute, and then wraps up prematurely. Then a wren starts, trilling a refrain like an alarm call, dominating the show. Underneath its line, collared doves call softly to each other. A cuckoo, deeper in the wood, clears its throat.
Sitting amidst a dawn chorus is a completely different experience to hearing it from bed. It’s so loud, for a start. And it is far more fluid than I thought it would be. There is not so much of a climax, but more of a slipping in and out of different songs, as birds announce their presence and leave a hole, an absence as they disappear. Not being able to see anything around me makes this musical presence/absence far more striking.
Just as my ears grow accustomed to the lead refrain of the wren, a cockerel, far off in the distance, crows a repeated series of notes with a rhythm that awakens the musician in me. And I know exactly what I will play and sing, too, as I experience a timely flashback of a moment when I was twenty, leaning on a windowsill, listening to a bird break the morning in. I’d written a song about that moment, about wanting to escape with the bird and its song. I’d not played it for years.
The lyrics become oddly prophetic as I roll them around in my mouth; I place my fingers in positions on the fretboard that they have not assumed for a very long time.
The cockerel continues to crow, counting me in. It is as if I am standing on a platform as a train rolls slowly by, spotting the approach of an open carriage door, waiting for the right moment to leap.
I would burr strings, fluff notes, and overshoot the vocals with a voice rigid from the cold, but it felt right on this enchanted island thirty miles from the UK mainland, a world full of overshoots and vagrant chorus members. And when I stopped, I would hear the space of my song’s absence for a fraction of a second, before the rest of the chorus rushed in.
– taken from ‘Songs About Birds’, a recent piece of writing about reawakening song-writing through ornithology and birdsong,