Tuesday, 10 July 2018

South Walney Nature Reserve, June 2018

It was a day of two halves. Set off from home around 8.45am amid squally rain, wind, wind, rain, more squalls and did I mention rain? … headed off to  South Walney, Cumbria Wildlife Trust's Nature Reserve that lies at the very southerly tip of Walney Island, northwest England. I was leading a full-day outdoor poetry workshop - oh yes, us poets do crazy things! And I’m thinking: will anyone turn up? Well, if not, I know I'll enjoy myself at Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s Reserve, whatever the weather flings.

People did turn up. Poets I know from other workshops I run, mainly my monthly Write on the Farm ones. They came from Bolton, Rhos-on-Sea, Ripon, Sedbergh, France (by way of Grange-over-Sands) and Kirkby Lonsdale, with apologies from writers from Warrington, Kendal, Richmond and Lancaster.

Each of us had a tale to tell of the cattle we'd met on the track as we drove in. A herd of 60 or so, fine looking cows, frisky calves and a magnificent bull, complete with brass ring, that stood rock-still on the narrow road to the reserve.  Bellowing, frisking, ponderous older cattle, wind-excited youngsters.

Would they bother us? Should we be concerned? In a moment of synchronicity the farmer turned up in his Landrover, to ask if Sarah the Warden of the reserve was around. She wasn’t, but a couple of other staff were there in her place. I took the opportunity to ask the farmer if the cattle were umm friendly? “Couldn’t get a gentler lot of cattle than these” he said… well, ok!

I’d planned the day to coincide with the high tide of 1.50pm, knowing from past experience that grey seals swim into Lighthouse Bay, but which I call Seal Bay, to fish and play on the incoming tide. We gathered around in a huddle of over-trousers, waterproof boots, kags, hats, gloves, flask of hot drinks - yes, for although it was 16th June, sweeping rain and wind pouring in off the Irish Sea, plus the misty sea-fret, made for a chilly day.

I pointed out sights they could see if it wasn’t so mist grey… over there’s Black Combe, in front of it BAE Systems covered nuclear submarine dock, to the right of Black Combe lie the mighty Scafells, right again, when it’s clear, you can see Dow Crag, Coniston Old Man, Fairfield, Kidsty Pike, Pen-y-Ghent, Heysham power station. I stopped. Faces turned towards me silently said ‘yeah yeah, we believe you’.

So we set off, heads down into the wind. I’d planned a series of stopping places, ‘point to points’ where, if the weather had been clement, we’d stop, read a poem, then give writing prompts based around place and poem. For example, Katrina Porteous’ poem ‘Dunstanburgh’, ‘Yellow-Horned Poppy’ by Vicki Feaver, ‘Sandpiper’, Elizabeth Bishop… however, as it was a flinging down morning of horizontal rain, we ploughed on to the hide overlooking Seal Bay.

The tide, a 9.6 metre, would fill the small Bay this hide overlooked. But, as it was still early on and the tide yet to come in, we discarded wet clothes, got out binocs. and cameras, opened the hide windows and peered out through mist and rain.

You could see Piel Island, ghostly ruins of its Castle, see hundreds of oystercatchers to the right of the hide, down on the marsh grass and sand that would be covered with tide later on.  And, over on the long shingle spit, where later seals would haul out and rest, were the cattle, rain-blurred silhouettes. As the bay filled, one by one came the bobbing heads of grey seals. Look! There’s one! Oh, see, there’s three of them over there! Want to borrow my binocs.? Thanks. Yes.

As the sea came in along the, at first narrow channel in front of us, a bellowing came from the cattle on the shingle spit. First, the bull gave voice, loud, urgent… his bass notes taken up by cows. They must know the tide’s coming in! We said to one another in amazement. Then it was a forget the seals, look at the cattle crossing from shingle spit to mud bank below us….

… in an unhurried, yet purposeful, fashion they wended their way down the mud bank on the far side, into the incoming tide, only hock deep, so they were fine. Then, sedately, cows and calves plodded up the mudbank towards us. It was like watching a documentary on wildebeest. The bull watched then took up position in the centre of the herd. The calves were skittish and leaped through the tide like pups.

One cow with her little white bull calf went a little more to the left of the stream of cattle, where the water was deeper. Well! Her calf bounded as if it was on springs through the tide. Tail up in the air, to the other side.

It was a primeval, ancient sight to witness, the bellowing, splashing, determined plod up the mudbank… and us knowing that across Morecambe Bay is Heysham Nuclear Power Station, Onshore Gas stations at Barrow, BAE-built nuclear powered submarines, wind farms, and, round the corner from Black Combe, Sellafield. And there’s us, witnessing the procession of what poet-farmer Jane told us were Beef Shorthorns, and yes, thankfully docile.

The tide came swiftly in. Cattle safely processing back down the track towards the nature reserve centre and car park. We sighed, still in the throes of what we’d just heard and seen through mist and rain.

And then it was time to write. Handouts were given. Poems read by individuals or the whole group, a stanza or a line each. We read from poems I’d planned to read at various points around the reserve. Due to the wildness of the weather we voted to do some writing, have lunch in the hide, then later venture down to benches near the Groyne Hide.

The group read back poems they’d written. We lunched. Then it was out to brave the still teeming down rain and Irish Sea westerly wind. We didn’t stay long at the Groyne Hide, where seals fish on the outgoing tide; where the sea rushes out of the Bay; where fierce cross-currents crash against each other and the old stone groyne; where seals muscle-power their way back from open water to shingle spit, for haul out and rest.

On the way back we paused to look at horned poppies. Later, when back at the picnic benches where we enjoyed hot drinks, blue sky, sunshine, more sandwiches and flapjacks, I asked for volunteers to read poems I’d brought. Poems about ‘sandpipers’, ruined castles (Dunstanburgh), ‘yellow horned-poppies’, 'on being a lake' (I suggested they imagine what it would be like to be the sea), poems on ‘what the water gave me’, ‘sea to the west’, ‘between mountain and sea’ and ‘song of Caedmon’…

… beautiful to hear poems read in the open air, looking at the outgoing tide, listening to oyster catchers, eiders, herring gulls, looking at Piel, bathed in sunlight now, at the fells, at Black Combe below which poet Norman Nicholson lived at Millom, sniffing salt-laden air, enjoying the sound of poets’ voices, warm wind, and pleasure in each other’s company, having shared the fierceness of skin-wetting wind and rain... 

...witnessed the crossing of cattle, fishing of grey seals, sight of 100’s of oystercatchers, viper’s bugloss purple-blue spikes pushing through… all this, and the strange (to me) juxtaposition of wildlife living cheek by jowl with humans, industry, nuclear energy, gas, wind farms whose bases, I’m told, are home to barnacles…all in the presence of wide sky and the Irish Sea.

We ended the day by reading Norman Nicholson’s poignant and uplifting poem, ‘Sea to the West’ taken from this website:


Sea to the West

When the sea’s to the west
The evenings are one dazzle –
You can find no sign of water.
Sun upflows the horizon;
Waves of shine
Heave, crest, fracture,
Explode on the shore;
The wide day burns.
In the incandescent mantle of the air.

Once, fifteen,
I would lean on handlebars,
Staring into the flare,
Blinded by looking,
Letting the gutterings and sykes of light
Flood into my skull.

Then, on the stroke of bedtime,
I’d turn to the town,
Cycle past purpling dykes
To a brown drizzle
Where black-scum shadows
Stagnated between backyard walls.
I pulled the warm dark over my head
Like an eiderdown.

Yet in that final stare when I
(Five times, perhaps, fifteen)
Creak protesting away –
The sea to the west,
The land darkening –
Let my eyes at the last be blinded
Not by the dark
But by the dazzle.

Norman Nicholson


The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

- Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn't tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

Here’s a poem I wrote at the workshop 'Write on the Shore' and followed by one written on a previous visit to the reserve:

You'd think the sea

would lick its feet, clean
of this cabin, strain
its wooden walls and doors,
pull wide its windows

let in the seabirds:

black and white waitered

orange-billed oystercatchers, 

black-backed gulls

lesser and greater, herring gulls, eider

greenshanks, cormorants, dunlins, all 

would fly in calling, calling 
their musical news

these feathered towncriers

these tellers of storms and oilspills,

tell us news of whales and dolphins

of turtles, plastic-tangled, 

of gannets yellow-throated, diving, diving

of mackerel shoaling, 
netting clouds and sky.

This wooden cabin is shaking
its floors are shuddering,
its static self nailed, inert,
to earth.

Geraldine Green, Write on the Shore, 16.6.2018

Fishing on the outgoing tide

Heysham power station,
to the west, across the Irish Sea,
offshore wind farms.
Inland, Centrica BAE and
among all this
grey seals,
pink-footed geese,
curlews, dunlins -

a kestrel I startled,
as it startled me
sat on the roof
of the Groyne Hide
close by to where I
perched on a plank bench
watched seals fishing
in the outgoing tide.

Swing your gaze around:
Pennines, Piel Island,
Black Combe, Scafells
Coniston Old Man
Dow Crag, Red Screes,
Kidsty Pike, Froswick,
Ill Bell, the Howgills,

dizzying mantra, audience
to the winged-tide,
dazzling your eyes

A seal, sleek-nosed,
wave-shined, mimics
sun-splattered sea.

Geraldine Green, fr. Passing Through, pub. June 2018 by Indigo Dreams Pubs.

Poems used as handouts and prompts:
Dunstanburgh Castle, Katrina Porteous
Song of Caedmon, Matt Simpson
Between Mountain and Sea, Norman MacCaig

What the Water Gave Me, Pascale Petit
Sea to the West, Norman Nicholson
Yellow Horned Poppy, Vicki Feaver
Sandpiper, Elizabeth Bishop

Photos copyright Geraldine Green, all taken June 16th 2018, except for the first photo on this blog.

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