Sunday, 30 December 2012
Monday, 24 December 2012
Wednesday, 19 December 2012
Friday, 14 December 2012
Mid winter conjures a Medieval vulnerability across the landscape; the world of Bruegel’s peasant skaters, tiny figures making merry as the fields stretch away to be lost in the snow. Even when having fun they keep their heads down, braced againts the cold. Druridge Bay retains little from that time. Low Chibburn Precaptory dates from the early 1300s but is marooned in the rectilinear fields of ex-open cast and nearby Widdrington Castle long demolished. There are tucked away corners where the winter’s cold, unvisited woods and fields not dug out for coal suggest a world before. The frost has turned the top inches of sodden pasture to a crackling, scrunching crust. Hard work to walk over, with every other footstep breaking though the iced floor into the goo below. The cold has leached the colours too. Winter thrushes move quickly away, not even wasting energy on a call and on the ponds teal, mallard and moorhen keep their distance but are loathe to fly. There are pockets of ridge and furrow at the south of the Bay, picked out by a foggy sun. Step into the shadows and you can feel winter willing you to stand too long and get too cold. All wise peasants would best be indoors but I have been out counting the pools and flashes of water left by 2012’s deluges. Water boatmen still row under the ice which is thick enough to carry my wieght, squeeking and snapping under my boots.
Monday, 10 December 2012
Wildlife conservation is a choice, too often portrayed as a clash between some short term goal for our benefit versus the inconvenient natural world, exemplified in the common place the glib dismissal of nature standing in the way of development. However the choice may be between competing wildlife. There is no commandment that demands the Northumberland coast must remain as it is. The peat seams at Hauxley (see 5th December blog)are witness to the woodlands and swamps that once stretched out to a more distant shore now submerged. Before the Alder carr and Birch entombed in the of 4000 years old peat came an even more elusive landscape joining England to the continent; Doggerland, named after the Dogger Bank which remained as an island as the North Sea Basin filled from 7500 years ago. Occasional antler or mammoth teeth, or rarer still, a Neanderthal skull fragment hint at a lost world. Before Doggerland the North sea plains had been tundra, akin to Verner Hanke’s glacial world from Kai Peterson’s 1957 “Prehistoric Life on Earth”. Approach the problem of managing Druridge Bay from the perspective of a Martian in a time travelling space ship. Which habitat would you conserve? The ice fields and glacial tundra or the Doggerland steppes with mammoths and rhino? Perhaps you would prefer the wet woodland with its fleeting hunters who have left all too human footprints in the peat layers. All of these might justifiably be better choices than restored open cast lagoons or parks. Mammoths are an unlikely addition for some years, even taking the most optimistic mammoth cloning projects at face value. This should not stop us from thinking big, working with the landscape as a whole rather than hunkering down in isolated pockets of heavily managed unnatural nature.
Wednesday, 5 December 2012
Over the last twelve months we have gone from a major drought to the wettest summer on record. Newcastle upon Tyne, capital city of north east England and thirty miles south of Druridge Bay, has endured three separate spates of flash flood. The wet summer has spun out the oil seed rape's fluorescent monopoly on the arable fields inland from the dunes for weeks longer than normal and now much of the winter wheat has been washed out. There is a sense of deeper change, shifting rhythms undercutting the familiar seasons. Hard to be sure, year to year. Druridge Bay bears witness to much more substantial change. Walk out onto the beach at Hauxley, head south along the dune front and you will soon see a dark, fibrous mat layer of peat. Beneath lies a blue-grey boulder clay, ground to a fine grained plastic. Above sit the modern dunes with occasional lines of shell and iron pans. Tree trunks and branches jut out from the peat, whilst occasional stumps and roots hook into the boulder clay below. The peat is the remains of wet woodland, the older layers dating back to 4500 years ago, the youngest to 2800, finally succumbing to the invading sand dunes. The peat is rich in pollen, varying through time but starting with wet woodland rich in Alder and Oak, then Birch. The trees succumbed to rising water tables as the land first became a mire then was over run by sand dunes driven before the encroaching seashore. The dune face is a compressed history, time squeezed like a rarefied gas until solidified in front of our eyes. The Hauxley peat beds are a highly unusual and significant site, telling of the North Sea’s expansion and how much the familiar can change. Not much consolation in the face of the floods, but a striking reminder of the difficulty we have capturing a sense of time and scale.