Monday August 03 2020




Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Way out west

Posted on July 25 2014 at 11:39:12 0 comments


Mary Green reports on summer nature further afield.

This is the first time I’ve done an August edition, so I thought I‘d give you an extra holiday with some country notes from a bit further away.

Here, though, it is currently a lovely summer with all the flowers blooming that should be blooming, the mallard drakes losing their colours, and berries and nuts well set on the trees.

I’m glad to say the canalside has now been mown as it should be, and the verge near Barnt Green with the orchids in hasn’t been mown – but the flowers have disappeared. I’m afraid someone may have picked them.

Please don’t pick rare flowers: it is an offence, though picking common wayside flowers is OK. If in doubt, don’t!

I spent some time on the Isle of Mull (far west Scotland) in May, and Connemara (far west Ireland) in June (the latter involving driving right across Wales, too) so I’ve had my share of the Celtic Fringe recently.

For those of you who don’t know Mull, you do really. Its main town, Tobermory, is the model for Balamory – and it looks just like it, with painted houses above a lovely harbour.

This was the first time I’d had more than a quick visit, and it was a revelation.

We really did see White Tailed Eagles and Golden Eagles, though with binoculars and too far away to photograph. They both fly quite differently from our familiar buzzards and are huge.

The island itself is remote enough for you to be able to see them in quite ordinary places, though the white tailed ones have had to be carefully nurtured back over recent years.

The life of the island interested me. It is remarkably self-sufficient (though of course it’s a relatively quick ferry crossing to Oban and its supermarkets).

Tobermory has a distillery, a chocolate factory, a bakery, a pottery, a smokehouse (next door to our cottage with fresh shellfish daily as well as wonderful smoked fish), and the world-famous Isle of Mull cheddar farm (still one farm producing all that cheese).

There is a mussel farm and places they get oysters, crabs and lobsters, and an old hotel with an organic market garden which supplies other restaurants. There is a pig farm producing Mull bacon and sausages, and others for local lamb and beef.

The interesting thing is that there’s mostly one of everything for the island, as if they’ve realised that competition is a waste of time and this way they can all have everything local.

There are some lovely old woods on the island, though like a lot of the Highlands they lost much of this and have less attractive modern conifer plantations.

But we saw orchids aplenty, including unusual ones – the birds’ nest orchid and the helleborine – in the woods, as well as more common northern marsh and early purple orchids on open hillsides.

The roads were lined with flowers (no verge cutting!) including lady’s mantle, bugle, moon daisies, thrift, water avens, all the spring flowers like wood anemones, and bluebells everywhere you looked. On old walls was the delightfully-named fairy foxglove.

The cuckoo called all the time, waking us up at 5 in the morning, so if you’ve been missing it, that’s where it’s gone. The birds that host its young (unwillingly!) and the caterpillars it feeds on are still there, though they have disappeared from much of England.

We visited Iona for the day, a holy island linked with Lindisfarne in north-east England. The dunes there were full of small flowers, daisies and scyllas and bugle, and while walking past a daisy-filled field we heard the unmistakable sound of the corncrake.

This bird is very rare nowadays, only living on the remote highlands and islands, but in my youth I can remember hearing it more. Even if you haven’t heard it before, you’d know it by its strange croaking call. Among other birds, we saw wheatears guarding their territory.

The hotel on this tiny island had its own beautiful organic vegetable garden, thriving well. Years ago in my visits to the Highlands, I remember never being able to get many fresh vegetables except potatoes and cabbage.

But it is quite possible in their climate to grow other things successfully by traditional methods, including use of local seaweed as a fertiliser.

Now there are several local small-scale growers doing really well: we found one previously on the Isle of Skye which supplied the famous Three Chimneys restaurant.

If Mull was good, Connemara was even better. This is a very remote region with a highly indented coastline and many islands, so it always relied on the sea for food and boats for transport.

A relative there told me he grew up on salt fish, potatoes and cabbage, and in the summer for a real treat, fresh fish, potatoes and cabbage. People ate quite a healthy diet, even if not varied, including other greens and seaweed and local cheese.

There is still a fishing industry of small boats, though of course, like Mull, tourism is vital to them now. Many still use the traditional boat, the currach.

This is a long pointed relative of the coracle, with a wood frame originally covered by skins but nowadays by canvas or even planked. They are also used as racing boats, and the local boat races are great occasions.

Traditional community spirit exists here still. It’s a long time since I was shopping in a small town where the shops all closed their doors and put out their lights out of respect, as a funeral passed by. And we were given a brief history of the deceased and what she had done for the community.

Having relatives there, we were immediately known to everyone.

There have been hard times in the past and recently, in an uncompromising rocky environment facing Atlantic gales. But now it looks quite vibrant.

One of the measures of this is house-building. Here, they hack out a space from the rocky hillside and many people – like my cousins – are building their own houses. The stone which was hacked out is cut and used to face the houses, so they fit in well.

They build everywhere they can, seeing it as a sign of prosperity for the community, not as an invasion of their rural peace! Most of the houses, except in the towns and larger villages, are single-storey and either stone-faced or painted white (or bright colours in the towns).

And everyone, locals and tourists alike, seems to walk. Walking along roads here is a pleasure – there are even signs asking motorists to look out for us.

And the wild flowers are the best I’ve ever seen. The things that are rare at home, which I take people specially to see, like ragged robin and orchids, grow thickly along the roads, in fields alongside, and even in the bogs with asphodel, march cinquefoil, and cottongrass.

Orchids even grow on the stone walls! Much of the hedging is fuchsia: not originally native but naturalised throughout the far west. Less attractive is an invasion of gunnera, escaped from some of the big house gardens, and not living in harmony with native species as the fuchsia does.

Add to this banks and fields full of huge moon-daisies and meadow buttercups, water avens, bedstraw, devil’s bit, knapweed, meadowsweet, loosestrife…I could go on.

On the cliffs were familiar seaside plants like pennywort, stonecrop, sea bindweed, kidney vetch (or lady’s fingers), eyebright, milkwort and red valerian.

We ate rock samphire gathered from a sea-wall. There were not many wild roses, but occasionally the lovely dark pink downy rose, common to the north and west.

We found some rarer orchids here too – the beautiful delicate white butterfly orchid. And there is a rare heather, St Dabeoc’s Heath, with a large pink flower, which only grows in this part of Ireland.

We found the familiar St John’s wort, which always flowers around St John’s Day, the “old midsummer” on June 24. What we weren’t expecting was that everyone still lit the St John’s eve bonfires on the night before, to welcome midsummer.

This is in fact an old pagan solstice ceremony later taken over by the church. A bonfire suddenly appeared near our cottage on the Sky Road and we joined in with the locals.

While there we visited two other islands. One was Inishboffin, a beautiful island a bit reminiscent of Iona, but further out to sea. It has a perfect sheltered harbour and is now a big tourist destination. The flowers here were even better, with banks of wild thyme, pink centaury and wild carrot among others, and lovely stone walls.

There is a ruined church which was founded by St Colman, who was previously on Lindisfarne…more connections. The graveyard is still in use though there is a new church nearer the harbour. We noticed that graveyards were often away from churches, and often by the sea.

There was a lovely one on another island we visited, Omey Island, on the dunes and full of dune flowers like thrift and sea holly.

You can drive or walk to this island over the sand at low tide, and the whole island is full of skylarks and the scent of white clover. There were sea-birds everywhere: gulls of all kinds, cormorants and herons. We saw the lovely wheatears again: they flit from fence-post to fence-post warning you off their patch.

Connemara is famous for its horses – they call them ponies but they are quite big. They are white but darker when young, and beautiful to see. They race them on Omey sands and every farm seems to have them.

The same is true of donkeys. They used to be the main form of transport. People travelled to the local town in donkey-carts, and donkeys were used to haul turf for the fire. Turf, or peat, is still cut by many people, but only enough for their use.

The donkeys also carried seaweed to fertilise the ground for growing vegetables. Now they are kept as family pets: it seems people can’t bear to lose them.

Everywhere we went we saw little vegetable gardens cleared from patches of cliff, often near the sea and in full sun. I remember this happening on the cliff below our Devon farm when I was a child.

There was an excellent local bakery and a shop with a fine selection of Irish cheeses. Clifden had supermarkets, but the main one has a section for local organic vegetables and fruit. So again, there was local produce in a harsh environment – and of course fish aplenty, including locally smoked wild salmon. And Connemara malt whiskey!

There was evidence of this harsh environment all along the coast, where boats and whole harbours had been destroyed by the winter storms, which hit them possibly even harder than they did our west coast. But little quays had already been rebuilt. O

f course, we were there in glorious June weather, with hot sun, impossibly blue sea and empty white sand beaches, but I know it’s not always that idyllic!

There were still cuckoos calling in Connemara at the end of June. As my cousin said, why would they want to leave?

The poem is from my previous visit to Lindisfarne, whose abbey was linked with Iona and Inishboffin. The villanelle is an old poetic form with intertwined lines like a Celtic knot.

Villanelle for Lindisfarne

The light and water shape the shifting sand
Birds call like choristers across the air
The castle tells me to believe in land

The breeze brings salt towards my nostrils, and
Plays like a harp along my loosened hair
The light and water shape the shifting sand

The ruined priory suddenly is manned
By ghosts of monks whose singing rises fair
The castle tells me to believe in land

Strong tides rise quietly to my right hand
And to my left, leaving no room to spare
The light and water shape the shifting sand

Those ancient figures, weather-worn and tanned
Rise drowned but living on the shoreline, where
The castle tells me to believe in land

I stand here, earth and fire, softly fanned
By centuries of singing, which I share
The light and water shape the shifting sand
The castle tells me to believe in land

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