I knew Mallerstang long before that day in March but now it would be a key chapter in a new book and I approached it afresh. To immerse myself in Mallerstang I went there whenever I could, other days, other seasons. One brilliant late November day a low sun gave fresh perspectives and from Wild Boar Fell I saw Mallerstang in a new light, a marvellous winter’s light. At home, I installed OS maps on my computer and pored over them, tracing each exploration, plotting flora and fauna at each new discovery. There were Viking place names and I discovered strongholds of the lovely cloudberry flower scattered across the map. I’m still finding them and they’re irresistible. I have a date with Knoutberry Currack for next summer's cloudberry flowers. Cloudberry, Knoutberry, it's the same plant. I like this sense of a book's continuing to grow as I discover and share discovery.
There were time-imperatives for a nature writer with a book deal and a deadline to meet. I wanted images of skylark and golden plover in breeding plumage and their season would be late March to mid-July- a happy coincidence of dates.
The opening of Cumbrian Contrasts shows the Great War as a marker. The core of the book was written through 2014, a hundred years after the outbreak of war. My working title was Save the Skylark. I planned to photograph the lark ascending in song-flight. Vaughan Williams began The Lark Ascending before the Great War, went to France as a medical orderly, and finished the piece upon his return. Delius wrote On Hearing The First Cuckoo in Spring in 1912. Music whose inspiration is birdsong. Through the intervening hundred years the base-line has shifted and continues to shift. The decline in numbers is stark. Hearing lark song and the cuckoo becomes rarer and more precious by the year. I had to have photographs, my own, always my own. That was The Quest. And by its very nature a quest is a challenge fraught with difficulty. As I was to discover.
A year and a day: that’s the time-frame often given to an adventurer on a quest in story. It is a journey of self-discovery. There is an objective, elusive and hard to win. The way is uncertain. After long adventure the conclusion may be a triumph, but the outcome is not always what the knight-adventurer expected.
For a nature writer, the adventures along the way are the inspiration. Whatever course I set myself, there are surprises. The inspiration at the heart of the story lies beyond what any photograph might capture. If word and image weave their magic, together that might do it.
Time was running out. My last chance to photograph the golden plover I had set my heart on. I knew where to find them and I came upon them on a summer's day of breath-taking beauty. There was a surprise gift too . A peeping came from mossy rocks, beyond a pool set amongst flowers of butterwort and lousewort. What was that mystery note? He was so confiding, as we crept closer and sat on a rock to study this handsome bird for a long hour- until his lunch arrived in a cloud of midges and sent us on our way. A dunlin in breeding plumage peeps out from the back-cover of Cumbrian Contrasts, and there’s a full portrait within. It was an elemental day of sunlight, swirling mist, wind and rain, and rich in golden plover. I doubt I'll ever again have such an intimate interlude with a dunlin. Sunlight reflected in his eye , and illuminated a displaced white feather on his belly - these motes of light confer magic. And the novelty of his peeping note. Afterwards, I trawled the internet to find a recording so that I might recreate that July day on a cold winter’s morning.
A website for the Audobon Society gives a recording that matches the dunlin we heard.
The British Trust for Ornithology gives call and detailed information on dunlin habit in an excellent video.
My talks this autumn will be image-based. But nature writing is story, with a close-knit weave of word and image. They are integral. So I’ll include a couple of short readings, from this Mallerstang chapter set in the eastern fells and including Wild Boar Fell, East Baugh Fell and Nine Standards RIgg. History intertwined with natural history and Pendragon Castle and Lady Anne’s Way also feature in my narrative. Search for them on this blog to read more. Nature writing and the quest for photographs is my title; a quest is never smooth and even, you may like to hear of what went wrong before things went right- moments of farce and comedy.
See Home Page for details of forthcoming author talks.