Sunday, 28 September 2014

RSPB Coquet Island

To the Lighthouse


Dusk falls on the Lighthouse and monastic ruins of Coquet Island

I am bound for Coquet Island, a mile off the coast of Northumberland, just out from Warkworth (Amble) Harbour.  


It's only a ten minute bounce across the waves in the RSPB RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat), expertly piloted by Paul Morrison, the Warden of Coquet, but, as with Alcatraz, the rocky and turbulent waters would not make an easy swim back to shore.

Warden Paul Morrison and Volunteer Hilary wave goodbye



I say I am bound for Coquet, and the word is apt in its connotations of contract and commitment, as well as that leaping idea that fits the boat's forward movement so well. I have committed to a fortnight's voluntary work on this tiny scrap of rock, and once dropped off there is a real chance that I could be stuck there for weeks, as the wind and tide can combine to prohibit any landing.


I already dream of helicopters.


But it's birds I am there for, even though the real stars of Coquet, the Roseate Terns

Roseate Terns - Photo by Wesley Davies, Assistant Warden

Roseate Tern - Photo by Wesley Davies, Assistant Warden

and their support act, the clownish Puffins, have all long since flown.

Puffins - Photo by Wesley Davies, Assistant Warden

Puffins - Photo by Wesley Davies, Assistant Warden

In the breeding season, which is roughly April to early August, there can be as many as 35,000 nesting seabirds on this four hectare (less than one mile circumference) island, and so visitors are not allowed (there is nowhere to step!) and the Wardens and volunteers keep watch, both from hides and via CCTV.

RSPB Coquet Island Bird Hide, currently in London as part of the Camden Migration Festival. The 6ft x 6ft hide began life in 2005 as a basic shelter but has been gradually modified and enhanced over the past decade by its creator, award-winning blacksmith Stephen Lunn.  Externally it resembles a miniature version of the Trinity lighthouse on Coquet Island but instead of a giant bulb, there is a disco ball, which bathes the inside of the hide with shards of light at dawn. Stephen has also installed a wood burning stove, which he has forged in the shape of a clam.

This is to ensure that no one disturbs the birds nor steals rare eggs - surprisingly still a threat to this colony of Roseate Terns, which is the only one in the UK.


And so, once landed, I am Crusoed - though to be fair there are three of us: me, Wesley, the Assistant Warden, and Lee, like me a temporary volunteer. Even so, there is a real sense of isolation as the sun goes down.  There is no traffic, no TV, no running water, and as the moon rises there is a curious feeling of being adrift in space.


The work at this time of year is principally to manage the habitat so that it will be suitable for the return of the birds next spring (rooting out nettles and thistles, cutting and raking hay) and also to clean, preserve and store away the nest boxes for the Terns (remarkably they return - from wintering in Africa - to the exact same spot to nest each year, and some live for up to thirty years!)

Lee and me and our collection of freshly numbered Roseate Tern nextboxes

But there is also time to explore and to observe the natural world, which is by no means dormant...... More than fifty pairs of Fulmar breed here too, and I find one young one on the rocks, waiting for the tide to lift him off (they cannot take off from the ground)....




And I try to photograph these relatives of the Albatross in flight, as they swoop low past me at jet fighter speed, their wings locked, their eyes fixing me for a moment in a mixture of curiosity and menace.....




I count a total of fifty species of birds during my stay, with the most numerous being gulls, Oystercatchers:




Purple Sandpipers and Dunlin who seem to enjoy passing the time watching the waves:




But there are Herons too, 




And numerous Shags, flying dinosaur-like low over the water, then hanging their wings out to dry (to be super fast but also to achieve great depth under water - they typically dive to thirty metres, their feathers, unlike most seabirds, are not waterproof).....




And, though there are few trees of any description (Elder being favourite) there are numerous other varieties, including swallow, robin, such migrants as this young Willow Warbler (I think - please correct me if I have erred....)




You might catch a Yellow-browed Warbler en passant:





Rock Pipits hop about the shoreline, as well as the new-mown hay:



And the occasional Spotted Flycatcher appears as well:




And I spied this (female) Whinchat busily flitting between dried stems:




But it is not just birds.....  insects abound (or there would be fewer birds) and at the other end of the scale there are Atlantic Grey Seals, lying in state on the exposed rocks, lazily flipping flippers to disturb the flies:





Swimming so slinkily Silkie-like in rock pools:




Splashing into the surf in silly scares:




Or snorkelling just out of reach trying to see just what you are:





Humans count for little, though there have been residents here of one kind or another since at the very least the seventh century, when St Cuthbert recorded a visit. Hardy religious types have pitched up here, including Henry the Hermit, a royal Dane who died in 1127, having survived for years taking food only three times a week. During the last four years of his life he ground his barley into meal with a mill-stone, and after moistening it with water, made it into little round cakes that he dried in the sun.  He did not speak for three years and when he died he was found sitting in peace with a candle miraculously burning nearby (there was no lighter, nor matches, on the island).



Wesley Davies, the Assistant Warden, has lived on the island from April to October for five years now.

As with the Farne Islands, isolation has suited the reclusive and the mystic.  For several centuries there was a small religious community here, and remains of their buildings can still be seen.  


The medieval vaulted chamber on Coquet, probably the monks' living quarters, but possibly the original chapel

My room lies within the fifteenth century framework, though it has been completely restructured by Trinity House:






There have been stone workers here (Sion House, the London residence of the Duke of Northumberland, is partly built of Coquet sandstone), and sea coal diggers were said to have been living here in huts in the late eighteenth century.  Then in 1841 Trinity House established the lighthouse, which rises to twenty-two metres.  The designer, James Walker, incorporated parts of the monastery into the fortress-like structure, so that fragments of original wall and a vaulted chamber remain, and the base of the tower has sandstone walls a metre thick.





The first keeper on Coquet was William Darling, elder brother of Grace, the heroine of Bamburgh.  For over a hundred years there were at least two families living here, tending the light and fog signals, and they had cultivated gardens, kept pigs and chickens, and took their children to school on the mainland.  The tradition of family life ended definitively with electrification (in this case in 1976) and in 1990 Coquet was fully automated.  It now runs off solar energy, with a 35 watt halide lamp flashing three times every twenty seconds.  The white lights can be seen up to 19 nautical miles distant.  Trinity House still visit to maintain, but even compared with recent photographs the sense of decay is strong:








During my stay the light became comforting, almost a friendly human symbol to reassure me in the dark of night.  But on the other hand, in dim visibility or rain, the three second blast of the Fog Signal every thirty seconds, audible up to two nautical miles (and therefore very loud if you are close to it!) became very wearing, and this set me wondering about the use of lighthouses at all. We had several very misty days (and nights) and the two small boats I went on during that time navigated by GPS systems.  




While it is clear that the system of light houses, ships and beacons around the coast of the British Isles serve(d) a very useful purpose, I wonder how many mariners rely on their eyes and ears rather than sophisticated Differential Global Positioning Systems these days?  Trinity House's own website carries details of their engineering works to upgrade existing DGPS equipment, and the European Union's Galileo Positioning System is a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) which is due to be fully operational in 2020. We went across to the mainland on a small boat in thick fog, and the skipper relied entirely on two screens by his wheel.  

Another development that Trinity House has embarked on is the holiday let business - I wonder how long it will be before the lights really do go out?




Literary associations with islands are many, with some internationally famous examples such as The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner, who lived Eight and Twenty Years all alone in an un-inhabited Island......  In Defoe's novel, Robinson Kreutznaer, was the son of a merchant from Bremen, who settled at Hull, and who rebelled against good advice and sense, and was consequently punished by being the sole survivor of a graphically described ship-wreck.  After making himself safe and as comfortable as possible on his horrible, desolate island, Crusoe assesses his situation, noting down the evil and the good points as objectively as possible.  On the negative side he notes that I am divided from mankind, a solitaire, one banished from humane society..... While on the positive side, But I am not starved and perishing on a barren place, affording no sustenance. And he concludes that Upon the whole, here was an undoubted testimony, that there was scarce any condition in the world so miserable, but there was something negative or something positive to be thankful for in it......

Other tales come to mind: the struggle to keep a fire going as a signal light in Lord of the FliesHenri Charrière's account of his escape from Devil's Island in Papillon;  D H Lawrence's savage satire in The Man Who Loved Islands; Ben Gunn's traumatic experience in Treasure Island (vividly brought to life by Spike Milligan at the Mermaid Theatre in my youth.....) and Prospero's manipulation of shipwreck in The Tempest, and so on.  The metaphors work well, and society is enriched.....

Wez finds a sea urchin - supper is secure!

My isolation was tempered by good company, and was of very brief duration, but it was extraordinary nonetheless, and even such a short exile from the ways of civilisation is instructive.  I not only enjoyed being stranded here, but I also learnt much, not least in what we so often take for granted.....


Some of the team - Viking leggings are optional


I stumbled out into the dark, the beams of the lighthouse sweeping the night.  A distant whisper of surf brought the eerie sound of seals singing, and a damp breeze tugged at my tee shirt.  The unusually high pitched blast of the fog warning punctuated the quiet world, and the sound of a horse making water caught my attention, as the stream splashed on dry tussock and embedded stone.  

Isolation plays tricks on the mind.

There are no horses on Coquet.

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.

Shakespeare, The Tempest, III (ii) 133






Thursday, 18 September 2014

Desert Island Discs

Variations on a theme by Roy Plomley



Perchance to dream…..

The concept of being cast away on a deserted island plucks plangently at the heartstrings.  Humans are social beings, and being in company informs the structure of society, from tribal cave times to the Islamic State, from Downton Abbey to Scott’s Expedition to the South Pole.  With few exceptions, David Blaine perhaps being a rare one, St Simon Stylites another, we yearn for company, at least part of the time.  So the idea of being cast ashore on a remote piece of land, with no one to talk to, strikes deep into our reservoir of fears.

On the back of books and films about such isolation, Roy Plomley invited his guests to consider such a fate, and to take with them eight samples of music that might console them in their exile, completing the dream-game with a book and a luxury.

Such was the success of this as broadcast entertainment that the show still goes on, half a century after its inception and many years after the deviser’s demise.  Now the radio archives are available on line, and it is possible, should one so wish, to sift the choices of the famous and to generate a list of the most-requested desert island discs…..

The formula is so simple and so successful that it has become, I believe, an after dinner parlour game, one that causes merriment galore in the withdrawing rooms of the cultured, most especially when one is on holiday with friends…..

With this in mind, and finding myself marooned on Coquet Island, a scrap of Northumberland that lies low in the North Sea (more about this very soon), I thought I would play…..

The first thing that came to mind was the enormity of the task.  The choice is (almost) infinite.  So I invented a rule, which was that the discs had to be from my own collection (it would have been even easier had I restricted it to my ipod).

The second realisation was that anyone’s selection could depend on time, mood, day of the week, etc, and so there had to be a time limit, a rule of some spontaneity. If you committed yourself to trying to change the world by your pick of eight records, you would never make it.


So, Roy, here I am.  Alone, with my gramophone, the seagulls crying over the waves, and my eight discs.  Which to start?  Well, Roy, since you ask, I would like to hear Maria Callas, singing Casta Diva, from Bellini’s Norma.  Do not be fooled into thinking I chose this because I am an opera buff, and my fondest moments have been spent in boxes at Covent Garden, but it’s not like that (the closest I have been to a box in Covent Garden was when the market was still there).  I have never seen Norma, never saw Callas, and still don’t know what the song is about.  It’s just the thrill of that voice, that music, the rise and fall of strings and vocal chords that stirs something in me.  I think it is beautiful and sad. It conjures the glittering world of make believe that is the theatre, and within that artifice, that house of candles and gold paint, lies a key to the human soul.  Large numbers of diverse people can be brought together to forget the outside, to be together in a fairy tale, and to then turn to each other and say, Wasn’t that fantastic?


Louis Armstrong’s personal history shows that with perseverance it is possible to realise potential.  The odds in 1900 were not in his favour, but he worked at his music and mastered it, and shone as one of the brightest stars in the music business.  OK there was some schmaltz (and a lot of sweet smoke) toward the end, and I wouldn’t want to have What a Wonderful World on the Muzak of my island (though I really love it….) but the breezy optimism, gently chilled delivery, and superb musicianship of On the Sunny Side of the Street take a lot of beating.


And thank you, Roy, my next choice is from Beatles for Sale.  Again, as with Callas and Armstrong, I never saw the Beatles live, but when I was growing up their music was all around, and both on the radio and on TV we caught glimpses of them as they grew into their fame.  I sat through A Hard Day’s Night twice in succession in Watford (a dare devil thing to do, believe me) and played the album over and over with friends at school in our lunch breaks. I’ve chosen Rock and Roll Music, from the subsequent album however, because, although it may not be as brilliantly light and cool as Chuck Berry’s original, it possibly conveys best what the group was really like in the clubs of Hamburg, or the Cavern in Liverpool.  It is difficult now to explain the excitement they generated, but this number, and its enduring endorsement of rock and roll, sums up a change of attitude in young people that, at least in Europe and America, will never come round again.


My elder brother and I fell under the spell of Bob Dylan very early on.  I bought Freewheelin' on its release and Tim Binding, a friend at school, lent me Another Side of Bob Dylan, which immediately enthralled me with its raw directness.  Years later some friends met in Leicester Square to see Pat Garret and Billy the Kid and, possibly due to an excess of pink gins, ended up in Leighton Buzzard…..  The combination, whatsomever, of Peckinpah and Coburn, Dylan and Texas, burnt a hole in my mind that still glows round the edges.  Billy, they don't like you to be so free…..  Of course, as my friend Ben Timmis has reminded me, the Nobel-deserving Dylan's canon is so vast that this seemingly simple sample does not really do the poetry justice, but I maintain that the lauding of a freedom-seeking anti-hero in such plaintive and haunting tones, together with the calling out of murderous, and faceless, authority, coupled with Peckinpah's striking use of location and Coburn's mesmerising performance (we'll gloss over Kristofferson at this point) all come together for something that would do a lot for me on my deserted island.  [For my funeral, either Blind Willie McTell  or Every Grain of Sand - but that's another matter.....]


And your next choice?  I bought Joe Cocker’s I’m so glad I’m standing here today, when I lived in Italy and at the time I was experimenting with Super 8 film and working with a group of students.  This song seemed perfect for a sort of pop video (I had just featured in one that was directed by Charlie Borromel in a Villa on the Via Appia Antica, which apparently was very popular on TV, though I never saw it myself).  To illustrate the Cocker song Jessica Giuffre, daughter of two well-known Italian actors, wandered about St George’s English School catching the morning sun, blinds being drawn, etc.  It was clichéd, but as a dramatic coincidence of fate Jessica’s mother was killed in a car accident just before we were due to start, so I expected we would cancel the project.  Jessica did not bow out, however, and despite her grief, turned up punctually for our shoots, and we eventually put the song onto a soundtrack and it went on show to great effect.  Brave girl.


And your sixth choice?  This is Bob Marley and the Wailers, Three Little Birds.  And there are three reasons why I would dance to this on my island:  one, it’s a great tune, frothy and funky at the same time; two, I love birds; three, I met Bob and the Wailers on their first tour of the UK.  I was helping a friend’s band as a kind of volunteer roadie and they were the support act.  After the show we spent some time in the dressing room, listening to Catch a Fire….   And that, sadly, is about all I remember.  My one brush with stardom!  Enough said.


Carrickfergus?  It is a wonderful song, and this performance by the finest musicians Ireland has produced since O’Caralan is sublime.  Although my claim to Celtic ancestry (my mother’s father was ‘Irish’ and I have cousins in Mayo) is hardly pureblood, I cherish that part of me, and Irish music and Literature run through my nerves.  I’m drunk today, and I’m rarely sober…..  What an honest (if completely deplorable) line to sing?  Oh but I am sick now, and my days are numbered, come all ye young men, and lay me down…..  Bold to face the truth, and right in calling out youth to take on responsibility.


And your final choice?  Chopin.  Almost any nocturne would do, but F sharp’s as good a key as any!  It’s the perfect music at the end of a busy day, the romance sparkling out of the upper register while underneath there is the brooding of the dying artist looking out of the window at the sea and the rain, the Mediterranean at its most hostile beating on the shores of Mallorca…..  As with Callas, etc, I never saw Chopin, but I can just imagine his long fingers a blur across the ebonies…..


Now you will get the Bible and Shakespeare, but you can choose one other book.  This is easy.  I can imagine that long hours on the island might eventually cause some sort of depression, thinking of the worst, etc.  There is one book that can cure that, with its anarchic simplicity but enduring optimism.  Nothing can better the power of Svejk to survive the most desperate situations, and on my island I fear I may need his help.

And one luxury?  I was going to ask for a supply of yeast, so I could make ginger beer – or something stronger perhaps – but I changed my mind.  Could I have a piano?  And would it be too much to ask for Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier to go with it?  That will keep me busy…..

Paul McMullin, it is yours…..

Thank you, Roy, it's been fun.....





1 - Maria Callas - Casta Diva - from Bellini's Norma
2 - Louis Armstrong - The Sunny side of the street
3 - The Beatles - Rock and Roll Music from Beatles for Sale 
4 - Bob Dylan - Billy 1, from the soundtrack album: Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid  [Of course Main Title Theme (Billy) would be a nice alternative as a Karaoke version.....]
5 - The Crusaders and Joe Cocker - I'm so glad I'm standing here today
6 - Bob Marley and the Wailers - Three Little Birds
7 - Carrickfergus - Van Morrison & The Chieftains
8 - Chopin - Nocturne in F-Sharp, Op. 15, No 2