Read Taunted By Curlews Part 1
I was determined the speckled bastards with their silly curved beaks and warbling cries would not get me down. I had come to enjoy the countryside and that’s just what I was going to do. I carried on towards Marsett, snapping away at the views and watching the lambs frollicking in the fields – I defy anyone to watch lambs at play and not feel their hearts melt. I remembered an article I had read about photographing deer and how to make the images really stand out. It had said that you should get down so that the camera was at the deer’s eye level. If the animal is moving, then position it to one side of the frame with the animal facing the opposite edge to leade the viewer’s eye through the image. There were no deer around, so I had to improvise with a sheep.
Walking into Marsett I was greeted by a chorus of ducks catapulting themselves into the air with a loud clatter of wings. They can move surprisingly fast when they have a mind; don’t let all that waddling along in search of bread fool you.
The village of Marsett looks like one large farm and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was close to the truth. The houses are neat and tidy and four-by-fours of various ages and descriptions stand in the lane along with the occasional tractor. There is a green bordered on one side by a beck that does, in fact, babble as it winds its way down towards the west end of the lake. I would follow this beck for some distance along my route which was now marked by a single wooden sign, the first I had seen since the bridge next to the lake several miles back.
As I walked along the beck, I disturbed a duck from its resting place and brought my camera to bear, thankfully with the lens cap safely tucked away in my pocket.
OK, it wasn’t a curlew, but at least I had expunged the earlier incident. I should, perhaps, explain that with the day being so bright and sunny and there being a fair wind blowing, I was paranoid about getting dust on my camera lens and having great spots all over my photographs. More crucial was the need to prevent the lens getting scratched. It’s the only one I’ve got (and the reason I’m not a wildlife photographer), so if it gets damaged I’m snookered.
I checked the photographs just to be sure as a curlew warbled somewhere behind me. You may laugh I thought; was I becoming paranoid?
Further along I saw another heart-melting sight that conjoured childhood memories of days out to an open farm in at about this time of year. Memories of little red lamps and barns smelling of straw and sawdust and new life. A female duck was busy herding her little brood of soft yellow and brown chicks down the stream. The little ones huddled around their mother at the sound of my footsteps and I only took one quick photo before I moved on. I looked back and saw the chicks swimming through miniature rapids and nibbling at the little weeds and grasses growing beneath the water.
After a while, the stream bends away from the path and you enter the nature reserve, a region of marsh and streams at the west end of the lake. I still had some curlew-related determination left and I thought that, surely, this was the kind of place where they would abound and even with my little 18-55mm lens I would be able to get one or two decent shots. It wouldn’t matter if they were flying, walking or driving a bus, just so long as I could get my picture.
I could hear geese honking in the distance, but I couldn’t see them for now. They were out on the lake where the only lenses powerful enough to get a photo cost more than I earn in a month. But, I didn’t mind. I was busy trying to work out whether I was still on the right path or whether someone was about to stop me and tell me I was trespassing. Farmers in the National Park have to put stiles and gates in their fields if it’s on a public footpath, but they don’t make it easy for you. The stiles are always narrow beyond belief and the signs are left to weather and rot and fall down. The only new signs I’ve seen since we moved up here have been in my own village and they were by the roadside and so easy to access.
It being Spring, the fields are full of lambs and their mothers. Notices are tied on fences warning people to keep dogs on leads and to walk through fields single file so they don’t disturb the livestock. Walking through one field, though, it was the livestock that were disturbing me. Pairs of little eyes watched my passage and I had that creeping sensation in my stomach that means one of two things. Looking over my shoulder I saw a flock of ewes ambling towards me at a steady rate and I assumed that they thought either I was the farmer, which meant dinner time, or I was a threat which meant running time (for me). I’m not a coward, I just have a strong sense of self-preservation.
Thankfully the sheep and lambs in the next field were considerably more apathetic towards my intrusion and I passed amongst them without so much as a head being raised.
By this time I was starting to wonder if I was ever going to find the ruined chapel mentioned online. Normally these things, no matter how small, are indicated by a wooden footpath sign with something clear and precise like ‘church’ or ‘ruins’ or ‘footpath’. The best signs even have the distance written on them, though so far none of those I had passed did so. I mean, the website had to be genuine; it had a map and cookies and everything. The internet wouldn’t lie to me, would it?
I laboured up a slope and heaved myself through another tight stile and worried that this time my jeans would rip and I’d have to finish my walk with one leg dressed in denim and the other wearing hotpants. But I made it through and there, to my left and behind a low wall, was the chapel with one of the nicest views from a holy place I’ve seen.
I’m not a believer, but there’s something about old religious architecture that I find comforting. I can quite happily stand for ages looking inside churches and chapels and enjoying the way these buildings are constructed. The play of light as it shines through strained glass; the cracks and chips in the supporting columns; the knots and lumps and sweet smell of the wooden pews, their seats worn down by countless pairs of buttocks over the centuries.
The Dales are full of pretty little churches in towns and villages and a lot of them are still in use, though in bad need of restoration. Stop at any village noticeboard and nine times out of ten you will see a notice for some charity fund-raiser aimed at re-leading the roof of the local church, or preserving the sixteenth century fittings that are one of only a handful that still survive.
This chapel, however, needs more than a bit of re-leading. I suppose there came a time when the congregation dissipated and the building just wasn’t worth the effort to maintain. It’s sad, in a way, when you imagine what it must have been like to attend a sermon with the view out over the lake and the wading birds calling overhead and the sounds of life in the fields.
And the curlews.
I left the little chapel behind, glancing over my shoulder at the sound of a pair of lambs gambling amongst the headstones whilst their mother kept one eye on them and the other on the grass she was munching. It was a nice contrast to see the crumbling walls become the playground of young wildlife.
The path went pretty much straight across more fields until it came out above the shorline where sand and mud were washed by white-capped waves stirred up by the ever-strengthening wind. It was at this point that I caught sight of the geese out on the lake, honking at each other and preening themselves. A curlew strutted across the sand and ruffled its feathers at me as if to gloat at my lack of a long lens.
But there are times when something you need falls to ground before you and, in the middle of the path, settled the largest Red Admiral butterfly I’ve ever seen. I knew what it was because my grandfather had taught me about them when I used to watch him digging in his garden. He would show me the Red Admirals and tell me to chase off the Cabbage Whites that were intent on devouring his carefully cultivated lettuces. It became a good-natured challange between me and my younger cousin to see who could scare them off first. The butterflies, not the lettuces.
From now the path undulated above the shoreline and I saw more peewhits wheeling and diving. They would fly up into the air and hang motionless as they battled the wind before they eventually gave up and decided it was much easier to just float on the surface of the lake and paddle. They’d get wherever they were going a lot quicker that way.
I crossed one last field and the stile took me over the wall and down into the road a little way above the Pay and Display car park. As much as I enjoy walking, it felt good to have something a little firmer under my boots for a change. My legs were aching and I was beginning to wish I’d brought a hat to wear; the temperature wasn’t particularly high, but of course that didn’t make any difference when I’d spent several hours out under the sun. Still, I felt a certain sense of achievement and even the lack of any curlew photos was not enough to ruin the moment.
I walked back along the road to Bainbridge, noticing half-way along that my camera battery was almost empty. I switched it off and packed it in my rucksack and descended the final slope down towards the village green where the van was waiting. It was nearly two o’clock and although I wasn’t feeling particularly hungry, I thought it might be a good idea to sit down on one of the benches on the green and eat my peanut butter sandwiches. The moon was rising above the hills and I felt tired, but satisfied.
An RAF Hawk in black livery swooped low over the village, framed perfectly by the roofs, and I dove for my rucksack before I remembered that my battery was probably too low to get any shots in. Oh well, there would be other times, I was sure.
I stood up, brushed the crumbs from my lap and tried to ignore the curlew taunting me somewhere in the blue.