Having birds in your pipe certainly starts to make you think about them a bit more.

When we were away on holiday the house must have seemed a particularly quiet and peaceful place, and I guess it was at least in the evenings without my incessant need to have the radio on. Maybe it is because I’m an extrovert by nature, but unlike the Lovely Wife I find it hard to concentrate in complete silence and need and like having something burbling along in the background. More likely, it is because I grew up in a house where either or both the TV were on at the same time from early in the morning to late at night – it was not a quiet house an as in many cases our childhood experience define our own unique brand of what normal actually is. Anyway, should you ever be passing our house and no noise can be heard we are either out or the Lovely Wife is beavering away on without her noisy husband to distract her.

Well, this oasis of quiet seems to have encouraged a pair of Great Tits to nest in the ventilation pipe from our upstairs bathroom. When we got back from holiday the first thing I noticed was the high pitched cheeping – then, as I stood bemused under the pipe, I noticed I was being stared at by a pair of adult Tits, each with a caterpillar in their beak. This staring was very much in the vein of ‘for goodness sake get out of the way so we can feed the hungry little buggers’ and I duly made myself scarce.

Since then we have been careful to not get in the way too much. The poor hassled parents have enough on their plates as it is feeding however many chicks they have in there; unfortunately we will probably never know that unless we by some coincidence happen to be around when and if they fledge. But the parents are certainly working hard, bringing in a collection of grubs and spiders for the hungry, insistent charges. I approximate 10 to 12 feeds an hour, which is not bad for two small birds.

I suspect that this is a second brood, as it seems quite late in the season. As nothing has ever tried and to nest here before, it seems reasonable to speculate that they had lost the previous brood and have given a different site a go; so far so good with the second attempt (although how we are going to clear out the pipe when they are finished is not a question I like contemplating – it’s a bit high for comfort.

The main problem – if you can call it that, as at the moment the feathered family is of no inconvenience to us at all – is that now they are effectively nesting in our house they are now ‘our’ Great Tits and we start worrying about them. The Lovely Wife was unhappy when she saw one the resident magpies sitting on the pipe looking down into it – but the chicks are very much still there and alive (well they make noise and are still being fed) so our view is that the predatory bird cannot actually reach the chicks (incidentally, we are pretty certain the magpies themselves have seen their nest predated this year by the local dominant pair of crows – the ones I am having the battle of wits with over the fat balls (update: so far the locking plastic garden ties are working, but I am not claiming victory over my sleek and black avian adversary quite yet) – so I do feel a little bit of sympathy for the larger bird.

Predation aside, there are plenty of other things to worry about. What happens if there is some heavy rain? Will the fledglings be able to fly up out of the pipe? (Common sense says yes, as the Lovely Wife pointed out the depth the nest has been placed is probably not far from the jump they would have to make to exist a nest box). What if that first flight results in the fledgling falling through our bathroom window? (This is circumstantially possible I believe when considering the relative locations of the pipe and the window.) Basically I am applying my usual approach of creative worry to something I should not be worrying about at all and I should just enjoying having an unexpected little drama a few feet from my tooth brush.

However, I do wonder what they must think of the noisy neighbours who moved in next to their peaceful nest hole a couple of weeks ago. I’m waiting for the annoyed pecking at the window to get me to turn the radio off so the kids can sleep…


Don’t go changing to try and please me

I hate it when things don’t go to plan. Well, when they do not go to my plan, anyway. Sometimes people will tell you (very sensibly, I guess) not to worry about the things you cannot control and concentrate on the things you do have influence over.

I do not disagree, however this does not help with the things that I think are under my control but turn out not to be. That is when it gets frustrating.

The Lovely Wife has commented before on my inability to take changes of plan well. I cope with them of course we all have to – but rarely with good grace. No, I have to grump my way through it usually, and unfortunately whoever is close by may well end up as collateral damage from the black mood that has no doubt descended. Trains that are mysteriously cancelled (especially late at night when I am never at my best anyway), work trips cancelled at the last minute, the shop has run out of my favourite beverage – the opportunities for change rage are endless. The problem really for me is not even some sense of disappointment as to missing whatever it is – I refer back to ‘business trip’ which is hardly something at I would look forward to (unless it was to, say, Bermuda – unfortunately it is usually Brussels) but a problem with mind-set. So if I am convinced I am getting the twenty past eleven train home and find it is cancelled – so thirty minutes of boredom on the platform and later than expected to bed just feels… Wrong. The inconvenience is minor but it can put me into a downward spiral that I need to get myself out of pretty damn fast if the situation is to be saved.

Actually, that is a where the Lovely Wife has learned how to manage me. I need space for a few minutes – and maybe a little rant against the unfairness of the universe as that sometimes helps and she is happy to oblige, having seen the signs coming a mile off (sometimes it is an advantage to be easy to read and I’m dreadful at poker anyway). Very occasionally a piece of percussive abuse against an unfortunate nearby inanimate object (always regretted, don’t try it at home). But if I have my little bit of moaning space, I come through it pretty quick.

Because in reality most situations, after a little thought as the throbbing pain where you have kicked the door frame is hopefully ebbing away, split into two types. Some fall under the ‘actually it doesn’t matter’ category – there is another train and you probably would have frittered away that half an hour and not gotten extra sleep about it anyway. But then there is the second type, where it becomes opportunity – if only for adventure. So it was the last train? What do you do now?

When I was in Japan many years ago my (well in my head at least if not in reality) girlfriend of the time and I made a foolish assault on Mt Fuji out of season. The rest of the year the mountain has that lovely snow frosting but in the climbing season thousands descend to climb to the top. We, in our foolishness and arrogance thought we would have a go in July. So we got the bus half way up and on our own struck out for the top. Sometime later above the clouds, when we had reached the snow line and felt terrible – Fuji-san is high enough to give you altitude sickness and we totally unprepared for that as much as the snow – so with only a few hundred metres to go we reluctantly went back to the ‘tourist town’ happy we had at least had a go at climbing what is an achingly beautiful mountain.

Back at the bust stop and formerly bustling shops, everyone had gone. No people. No bus down the 10 + miles of road to the base of the mountain. Just two Australian girls who had come prepared and were going to climb in the evening and get the bus back in the morning.

I had a moment, best described as weary despair, tinged with panic. Lady friend of the times was not much help and we were looking at being trapped for the night on an increasingly cold mountain with only a vending machine for overly sweet tinned milk tea for company.

It took me about ten minutes to pull myself together. After all, I did have a map (albeit entirely in Japanese). Looking at it in the fading light there looked as though there was a trail down through the woods that was half that of the road, if only we could find it. We found something that looked like the start of the trail and began a nervous descent. Luckily we did not know that these woods have a reputation for being a favourite place for people to hang themselves, but we had the happier experience of finding artificial cut steps and realised we had the right path. A couple of hours later, having emerged out of the darkness to find a Shinto shrine and a road we threw ourselves on the mercy of the Japanese equivalent of a Little Chef and were able to get the amused staff to arrange a taxi to our hotel and warm baths and futons.

The point of mentioning this is that the memories from that day are now important and largely positive. It never went the way of our plans, but once we got through the initial shock it turned into an unforgettable adventure. We were lucky to find the beginning of the trail certainly, but I’m a great believer with the view the harder you work at something the luckier you tend to get. What I need to persuade myself more often is that there is always a way of turning a change of plan to my advantage – I just wish I could do away with the grumpy transition process.

Picture Postcard

The Lovely Wife has been a trooper this last week of holiday. Not only has she had to put up with a growing nationalist tendency in me – I now wear my Northumbria flag badge with pride – but she has had to cope with infinite patience as I waffle on about childhood holidays and how wonderful they were. In addition she has had to cope with the fact that everyone from the region I call home over a certain age believes that anyone is fair game for a chat, and such a conversation is of highly indeterminate length (although never, ever short). Luckily, while my level of patience is something akin to the time it takes my family and friends to eat their way through a cheese board (with or without port) the Lovely Wife has all the patience a middle child has to install into her.

This week we were up in the North East, near the village (small town?) of Rothbury, in an old mill with a working (overshot, you see I have learned some things) waterwheel beloved of the owner (he was giving it a good moss scraping treatment as we were leaving). For many years as a child the annual holiday was a caravan at Bamburgh on the coast and this area is one of my favourite places as a result. Bamburgh in particular is my personal example of the classic English village. It has a green, nice pubs, an old and interesting church (poor St Aidan, everyone talks about St Cuthbert, his protégé but he gets his shrine in the church here and no one ever visits it), the beach is just a stone’s throw away and of course it is towered over by its castle (albeit mostly Victorian restoration, it sure looks the part). It has an interesting and relevant museum (to Grace Darling, Victorian lifeboat heroine) which is well worth a visit. To top it all as we drove into the village laden with fish and chips they were playing cricket on the ground at the base of the crag on which the castle sits. Picture postcard does not come close (incidentally, even as a child there was a feeling that there was some kind of arrangement in this area between Bamburgh and nearby Seahouses. The latter gets to be pretty while the other is, well, not exactly ugly but has the useful shops, the seaside tat and lots of good fish and chip shops. Or put it another way, you can buy good fish and chips and they’ll still be warm as you eat them in a much nicer place.)

For me that place is Stag rock. It is called officially something else but it is a bit rock with a stag painted in white on it so that is good enough for me. No one seems to know who painted the stag in the first place (clearly someone repaints it every so often). Certainly it was well known locally forty years ago. There is a small lighthouse above it and while that of course is now automated I suspect that when it was manned the keeps got bored. I don’t care why, I still love the place as it has not changed in the last thirty years since I was last there on a childhood holiday; the rock pools are still as full of interesting marine life awaiting to be abused by a curious eight year old (even if in the progress of which he gets so sunburnt that he has blisters for the rest of the week. Oops) and the eider ducks still bring their ducklings right into shore, as we discovered to our delight as we munched through the local delicacy trying to avoid sand being an unwelcome addition to the salt (and in my case vinegar) as condiment. When you love a place so much it seems hard it can get better, but some places just keep giving. Cherish yours.

Always want to be here?

Absence last week is justified by being in a lovely part of Scotland – Kintyre – in an old lodge house where the only real social networking possible is in feeding the particularly cheeky male chaffinch outside the kitchen window (endlessly amusing). Specifically we were staying in a Landmark Trust property, one of several on the Saddell Estate. I’m a huge fan of Landmarks and will probably obsess about them some time in the future, but a couple of things are a bit different about this little area of land an coast, the beach looking over to the mountains of the Isle of Arran. The temporary one is that it hosts a fifth of Anthony Gormley’s artwork ‘Land’ which celebrates 50 years of the Trust. This is a life sized man of iron made of polygonal shapes staring out to sea on the shoreline. The other four statues do much the same – three also on the shore, in locations in Suffolk, Lundy (off the Devon coast) and Dorset, while the final one looks in contemplation into a canal in Warwickshire. We both like it a lot and think it unobtrusive and thoughtful. But we don’t live here; the old lady we chatted to in Campbeltown was not at all sure about it (although she did insist she did insist that she did ‘like the Angel of the North’) and I ‘made her day’ when I informed her that it would only be there for a year – after that they are sold for charity. Sometimes something even relatively small can be a problem if it changes a place you are very fond of.

The other notorious connection for the beach at Saddell is physically not visible on site, but impossible to erase; it was where the video to ‘Mull of Kintyre’ was shot. The McCartneys had come to love the Kintyre peninsula over a period of years– Paul to get away from it all (it takes some effort to get there) and Linda for her photography. You would think that being associated with one of the best-selling – but let’s admit it, corny – songs of the seventies would bring some level of embarrassment but the opposite is the case. Only Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie seem to be above this Wings’ single in the desperate attempt to provide some link for pilgrimage. The best is in Campbeltown where there is a Linda McCartney memorial garden in which sits a (rather nice I think) life sized bronze of the champion of vegetarianism and animal welfare, holding a lamb, much as I recall she did in Top of the Pops performances. It is quite sweet, although I have to say she would not be impressed by the amount of meat and fish consumed locally; looking at the wildness of the terrain and the lack of arable land I think she might have been reminded that sometimes you can choose what you eat, and sometimes you have to eat what is available. But when it comes to animal welfare, I think you should understand where what you eat comes from and how it has treated and what that does to the taste in your mouth. But like your reaction to art, ethics of eating is a personal matter and perhaps at best an open minded discussion over a nice whisky (of which this area has many).