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Monday, July 29, 2013

71) Skylark & Fulmar

 Alauda arvensis & Fulmarus glacialis

“Exultation,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “is the going of an inland soul to sea.”  Dickinson lived her whole life in western Massachusetts; she rarely left her family’s house and she kept her poems to herself.  She knew everything there was to know about being an inland soul.

Anybody who is given to inwardness, and who reads those words of Dickinson’s, is sure to feel a surge of familiarity.  For those of us who sometimes choose to take comfort in our own company there’s something about the vastness of a seascape that is mind-expanding.  Australia’s national myth-building might have had its foundations in the bush, but these days it’s towards the sea that the nation is regularly said to turn its imagination – and little wonder: while the vast inland may be too dry and harsh an environment to support a substantial population, the fertile strip of land around the coast provides a relatively comfortable lifestyle, and it’s there that the great majority of Australians live.

Which makes Canberra something of an anachronism, to an even greater extent than most Australians already consider it to be: the capital of a maritime nation, yet a city that is more than a hundred kilometres from the nearest coastline; a city whose constitutionally mandated seaport is connected only by tenuous imagination and a long, long road.  It’s the city I grew up in and since I became aware of the cultural hegemony of the sea in contemporary Australia it’s a city whose very inland-ness – its setting among hills and mountains, its plentiful woodlands and cold, clear nights – is something I’ve embraced as my own.

So for me the sea has always had an otherness, yet it’s an otherness that I’ve found myself drawn to time and again.  Not when I’m far from it, on those rare occasions these days when I’m settled among my hills – but when I get close to it, physically or emotionally, I feel its tightening pull on me, like an outgoing wave sucking at my feet.

When at the start of this year my family began planning a two week holiday to England for April, there was only one event set in stone: my cousin’s wedding in London, at the end of the first week, the sole reason for the trip.  Beyond the wedding there were days to fill, and it was almost immediately that I suggested to my father that we could go for a walk along the coast of Cornwall.  I’ve been visiting the south of England my entire life, but Cornwall’s a place I’d never managed to get to.  I grew up listening to my mother’s stories of summer holidays in Looe, though, on the county’s southern coast, and the idea of Cornwall had long captivated me, much as it captivated the Victorians who extended a great railway line from London all the way to the tip of the Cornish peninsula, several hundred kilometres distant.

It was on that railway line that my father and I travelled to Cornwall, six hours or more from Paddington Station to Newquay, across half a dozen counties.  When we arrived in Newquay, a town of 20,000 people half-way up the northern coast of Cornwall, it was late in the afternoon.  The sun was still bright when we checked into our hotel, though the wind was strong and cold, but even in late April winter’s touch was still lingering, and when the sun began to sink it sank quickly.  When we left the hotel to find some dinner the shadows were already long and icy.  Below the cliffs up which the town rises we caught glimpses of beaches, their sand as golden in the last light of the day as any Australian strand.  The waves were dotted with surfers, and on the road into town we were passed by a tall man, his board under his arm, jogging towards the sea, his whole body save for his hands, his feet, and the circle of his face enclosed in the protection of a fluorescent orange wetsuit.  Otherwise, though, the town seemed nearly empty.  When we stopped for dinner in a large pub perched above the harbour there was only a handful of other people in the long dining room, and my father asked one of the waitresses if there were normally more people than this.  “Yes,” she said, “normally we’re full at this time of year.”

We left Newquay first thing the next morning, eager not only to embark on our walk but also to get out of the town, which was to the liking of neither of us.  We’d come to Cornwall for its wild coasts; for its sea-pounded cliffs and wildflowers and seabirds; not for what we saw as the despoiled, touristic landscape of the town which we’d chosen as a departure point only because of its relative accessibility.  My father and I have walked together many times before, in Tasmania and in the mountains of south-eastern Australia and even in the Scandinavian Arctic, and each time we’ve walked it’s been in pursuit of a fugitive wildness, a depth of isolation from the human world that can only be achieved by slow and patient walking into the heart of nature.  In Tasmania over a decade ago we walked along the South Coast Track, eight days traversing the wildest part of a coastline so remote that you have to be flown in.  Walking west to east and spurred on by the vastness of the Southern Ocean always on our right, gazing south towards an imagined Antarctica three-thousand kilometres distant, we walked because once the light aeroplane had dropped us off at the western end of the track there was no other way out.

It was with such memories in mind that we walked out of Newquay.  Yet Newquay – the imprint it made upon the land – was not so easy to escape.  Strictly following the Coast Path, we walked west and then north-west around Towan Head, a long, narrow finger of land on the edge of the town, and then south for nearly a kilometre down Fistral Beach.  It took us all morning, but still whenever we turned a corner we seemed to walk right back into Newquay and all its unwild humanity.  On Towan Head we passed two buildings: one was the Headland Hotel, an enormous red brick edifice built in 1900 to the most luxurious standards of the day; the other was an ancient hermitage, which in more recent centuries had been a huer’s hut: a low whitewashed mound of a building high on a cliff above the sea, its interior barely protected from the North Atlantic wind.  For hundreds of years men had sat in that hut, warmed by a fire, gazing endlessly out to sea.  Upon sighting a shoal of Pilchard (Clupeidae spp) the huer of the day would rouse the town’s fishing fleet to action with his yells.  A life spent staring at the waves, in service of a town perched on the very edge of the land.

From Fistral Beach we skirted around the Gannel Estuary.  Though the path around the estuary took us right back amid the houses and streets, on the far side of the estuary, climbing up a muddy track towards Crantock, Newquay’s tiny neighbour, we at last left Newquay behind us and found ourselves amid something resembling a natural environment: a narrow beech-wood, the trees growing tall in the shelter of a hill.  Gliding above the treetops by the estuary we caught a glimpse of a Buzzard (Buteo buteo).  Later that day, at lunch in the bright sun outside the thirteenth-century Treguth Inn in Holywell, we saw two more gliding low and keen barely above the tops of the powerlines, and I was reminded of the Wedge-tailed Eagles (Aquila audax) which fly above my parents’ holiday house in New South Wales.  Usually they’re high and distant, but not always: ten or more years ago we became accustomed to seeing them fly low, directly over the house – the largest of the true eagles, larger even than the fabled Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), flying so close that we could see their eyes, and the curve of their beaks, and the colours of each individual feather.  They were looking for food: it was a drought, a terrible drought, and hunger and desperation had overpowered the birds’ instinctive wariness.  In Cornwall, every time I saw a Buzzard flying low over a village, or a Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) hovering right by the path, I wondered if these animals had become accustomed to the presence of humans in this crowded land, or if they were so fearless because the long winter had left them starving and desperate.  Normally we’re full at this time of year.

Around Crantock my father and I found ourselves walking past fields.  Town or farmland; it was difficult to imagine a more built environment than the one we were walking through.  Any wildness in Cornwall seemed to end with the waves crashing into the cliffs, as if those cliffs were a defensive wall.  As we walked down country roads past the fields we found that the farmland went right to the edge of the sea, and it was easy to imagine that if not for the heady cliffs the salt-water would lap at the crops.  Yet there were few crops visible, even so late in spring: the fields were bare and rocky.

There was noise in the fields, though.  Not the noise of the waves, nor the noise of the large and ubiquitous Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) – though those were both continuous and ever-present, our own out-loud ear-worms that would occupy us for the rest of the walk – but something else, something new: clamorous and joyful, hurled across the sky against the North Atlantic wind as if in defiance of the sea itself and all its crashing.

You can get too absorbed in a walk, you can get too locked-in to the rhythm of it: sometimes you need something unexpected to pull you out of the trance, and make you stop, and listen, and look.  When we heard this strange hectoring, clattering birdsong my father and I stopped walking, on the narrow strip demarcated by the Coast Path between the field and the cliff, and we looked for the singer.  We looked inland – for the first time since arriving in Cornwall we turned our full attention inland.  Somewhere beyond that field, beyond the distant trees, beyond the roads and the far buildings and the hedges, there were hills and mountains and rivers and lakes; there were cities and bridges and forests and meadows.  Behind us, forgotten for the moment, was the vast promise of the sea, and ahead of us, beyond our gaze, was all the multitude and variety of our own terrestrial habitat, and for that moment as we stood and listened it almost felt to me as if the sum of it was pouring out of this one bird’s song.  There are many birds that do not sing, and they belong to any number of biological Orders: there are the Gulls and related birds (Charadriiformes); the Raptors (Falconiformes); and on and on.  All songbirds, though, are of a kind: they’re all from the Order Passeriformes – the Passerines – and there are no songbirds at sea.  Sky-loosed, they yet cling to the land: they sing from forests and from meadows and from the banks of rivers; they encircle lakes and they perch on bridges and they share our cities.  They fill our hedges with song, they sing out their territories on mountaintops.  They follow us wherever we go – or we follow them, perhaps.  But they have the better of us: because they can take to the air, and perhaps none do it in quite such a way as the Skylark.

When we saw him he had finished singing, momentarily, but he was still high in the sky, a mere dot against the clouds.  Having finished his song he was falling, to catch his breath, and perhaps it was only this movement that allowed our ancient hunter’s eyes to see him.  Male and female Skylarks look alike, smallish and streaked in brown and buff, their shape unremarkably birdish.  Behaviourally, though, in early spring when mateships are being formed and territories proclaimed, the two sexes could not be more different.  My father and I saw plenty of the females: indiscreet, they ran furtively from almost under our feet along the bare ground.  They were silent and they looked over their shoulders at us as they ran, only occasionally taking to the wing in brief hops and spurts.

The males, though, were nearly invisible to us.  I’d learn about the particulars of Skylark behaviour later, reading about them in our hotel room that night, but when I saw that first male and not yet knowing anything about the bird, all I could think of was how high in the air he was, and how loud his song was.  A Skylark is less than twenty centimetres long from tail to beak and weighs only a few dozen grams; the sea-wind was ever-buffeting, bowing even the few low trees and bushes – and yet there he was, hurling himself up to one-hundred metres into the sky, flapping with all his tiny might just to stay in place, and all the while belting out his song for the whole damn world to hear.  He stayed up there for what seemed like minutes on end – in fact Skylarks can stay airborne and singing for up to a quarter of an hour – and he came down for just a few seconds breather before going back up, fighting gravity and wind and everything but instinct, and doing it all over again.  God knows how long he kept at it, how many times he went up and came down: when my father and I turned back to the path, keeping an even keel with the field on our left and the sea on our right, he was still at it.  Usually when people name an animal, particularly a bird, we do so with utter banality; but sometimes, we get it exactly right.  Skylark!  A jaunt, a joy, a delight, broadcast direct from the open air high above our heads.

But time was pressing.  On a long walk, time is always pressing, and with twenty kilometres due to be covered in the day it felt like we’d still barely left Newquay behind us.  Wearily we left the Skylark singing above his field and we continued down the Coast Path.

The majority of the path was flat, and looking back or ahead along the coast we could see that the clifftops were at an even height, all on a single plane like the mountains of Virginia with their crests blown off.  Occasionally, though, where the sea made inroads into the land, the path would dip and descend before rising steeply again.  In these places we were set amid the seabirds, and as we walked down the path and back up they watched us coolly from their nests on the cliffs.  Only the ones in flight ignored us, at home in the air and perhaps secure in the realisation that we couldn’t reach them there, no matter how close they flew; so as we walked down and back up again the gulls flew all around us, the steadiness of their flight barely betraying the turbulence cutting the trailing edges of their flight-feathers.  We watched them circle and swoop, circle and swoop, as they tried again and again to master the wind and the cliffs and their own delicately balanced bodies and land on the one tiny cliff-ledge that was their own: when one stuck the landing, after three or four unsuccessful approaches, it was exhilarating to watch.

Though he’s nearly forty years older than me my father was walking faster, unencumbered on this walk by anything larger than a day-pack and being a little taller than me – and, probably, more than a little fitter.  So he was walking ahead of me and increasing his distance as we climbed up a steep and narrow stretch of the path between thick tussocks of grass, a great gulch of cliffs to our right and the immensity of the sea behind us.  The gulls were flying thick in the air, rising from below us almost vertically in the updrafts mere metres from the path.  I’d grown weary of them by now – their monotonous presence, their constant cawing, their ceaseless flight – but the simple proximity of them to this part of the path prompted me to turn around and watch them for a few moments.  As I did so some remnant bird-watcher’s instinct in my eye noticed something about one of the fleeting birds: its head was wrong.  It was perhaps not quite as large as some of the other gulls, but I’d noticed amid the ubiquitous Herring Gulls the occasional even larger Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) and I knew also about the tiny Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) so I wasn’t surprised to see some discrepancy in size.  The bird was white, as white as the gulls around it.  But its head – its head was rounder, much rounder, than the heads of the gulls – like a radar-dome – and its beak was thin and knotted like an old tree branch.

I stared in disbelief and mounting excitement, and conscious that my father was getting further away from me I yet waited to get another glimpse, to confirm what I was beginning to think.  Soon enough the bird – or another of its kind – cut past again, banking on its stiff wings in the air pushing up off the vertical rocks.  With a grin I turned again and ran after my father, breathlessly pushing myself up the steep and winding path.

“I saw something!” I yelled when I reached him; though I was panting from the short run uphill, I may have yelled it twice to get his attention.  “Not a gull, I think it was a petrel of some kind” I continued.  Then, recalling a tourist information sign I’d read by the old lifesaver’s shed back on Towan Head in Newquay: “It was a Fulmar, I think.”  I turned around and beckoned my father to follow me back down the slope to where the view opened out into an encompassing V and the Herring Gulls and the Fulmars danced through the air around their cliff-nests.

“There goes one!” I shouted, my finger tracing a crude facsimile of a Fulmar’s flight as one raced past.  “See?”  By now I was seeing the difference between the two birds more clearly; I was picking the Fulmars out from the throng of gulls with greater and greater ease.

My father picked up on them, too, and took as much delight as I did in admiring their easy, forceful flight.  “They’ve got longer wings” he said, and there was some truth to it: their wings were different.  Whether they were actually longer than the Herring Gulls’ wings or not I don’t know, but they looked narrower, and straighter.  They were the wings of a bird more used to the air than to the land, a bird which can ride the waves across the sea without ever touching the surface.  The gulls, sitters and floaters as much as they are flyers, suddenly looked less natural in the air, and while the Fulmars held their wings as flat and as straight as an aeroplane’s wings the gulls held theirs slightly hunched from the shoulders, as if the air was a jacket that didn’t quite fit.

Fulmars spend nearly their whole lives out at sea.  Like other pelagic birds, they fly by gliding mere centimetres above the waves, riding the air currents there just as they ride the wind up the faces of the cliffs that they nest upon.  They can change direction abruptly in mid-glide, even turning around completely, without flapping their wings or appearing to put in any effort at all.  Out at sea they eat what they can find, grabbing food from the surface or diving, propelling themselves under the water with their feet or their wings, to hunt for fish, squid, jellyfish – whatever small animals are available.  Only when they need to breed do they come to land, and then only barely: they establish territories on coastal cliffs or on offshore islands, and they don’t even bother to make a nest – as if even gathering nesting materials would bring them too close to a terrestrial existence.  They lay a single egg directly on the rock or on the earth, and when the egg hatches and the chick is raised, parents and offspring alike return to the sea.  The adult Fulmars will not reproduce again that season.  If misfortune doesn’t befall them, they can live for up to forty years.

Australia’s coast is vast, and its offshore islands innumerable; seabirds can nest far, far away from people, and so they do.  As my father and I walked to Perranporth, our resting place for the night, my head was dizzy with Fulmars: I stopped to watch them whenever I could; learned to pick them out in an instant from the gulls; felt disoriented and delighted when my bird-addled brain became confused and momentarily unable to separate species from species.  After dinner that night while the news chattered from the television in our hotel room I read about Fulmars: how in Old Norse their name means foul gull, because of the vile oil that they vomit on predators as a last-ditch defence.  It’s said that if the oil gets on your clothes, you’ll never get the smell out no matter how many times you wash them.  On the local news the leading story was the mystery surrounding the death of hundreds of sea-birds, Fulmars among them but also Puffins (Fratercula arctica), Gannets (Morus bassanus), Razorbills (Alca torda), and particular Guillemots (Uria aalge), washed up on the beaches of southern Cornwall a few days earlier.  The chemical responsible had been confirmed as polyisobutylene, a fuel additive, thought to have been dumped into the sea from ships emptying their ballast or cleaning out their fuel tanks.  I wondered what the Norsemen would have called that.  As I went to sleep the Fulmars were settling into their cliff-top nests, each couple preparing to raise its single child in the months ahead, before they all flew low and fast back out to their true home.


The next morning, just out of Perranporth, my father and I walked up Cligga Head.  Alternately looking around us and head-down, doggedly walking, we passed scores of Fulmars, sometimes flying scattered amid the Gulls but often also in discreet colonies, set apart from the Gulls which inhabited their own cliffs, like separate nations.  We were used to the cliffs now, but still they took our breath away: vertiginous edifices, twenty or thirty metres tall and monolithic yet crumbling, too: frequently the path took an abrupt detour around some part of the cliff which had succumbed to the constantly pounding wind and sea, and had slumped into the long fall to the waves below.  A person fell from this location, we read on a sign on a fence still newly pale, and was seriously injured.  The Fulmars wheeled uncaringly on the wind and rode it out over the heaving sea and back, out and back, out and back.

Cligga Head was marked everywhere with signs of human use: the flat plateau of the headland was studded with the shells of buildings, shafts, holes and hollows, the leftovers of the mining industry that defined Cornwall in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  It was our first sight of the remains of this great industry, but the next day we’d see more: at the foot of St Agnes Beacon where the path cut a sudden diagonal line down a steep slope towards the sea and the waves heaved into the land, and with nothing visible but water and the close-cropped vegetation of the hill, we clung to the path as if the earth itself might shrug us off over the cliffs we knew were below us, just out of sight.  As we walked dizzily around the slope we saw in the distance a decrepit building, looming tall and stark against the sky and empty-eyed like Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly.  When we got nearer we saw that there were more buildings below it, lower than the tower we’d first noticed: they were all that remained of the steam engine halls that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had pumped sea-water out of the perilous mines below.

By chance my brother and I had taken a friend’s young son around the Science Museum in London not one week earlier; in the first room of the museum we’d learned about James Watt and Matthew Boulton, and about their steam engines, and about how they’d made their names in the mining industry of Cornwall.  Tin and copper and other metals have been mined in Cornwall for millennia, but it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the industry was at its peak.  Mines dotted the coast, the dark stone buildings that capped them built like implausible castles atop cliffs and crags, within touching distance of the sea’s spray.  So rich was the mineral deposit, so fervent the hunger to excavate it, that the mines sometimes reached below sea-level.  At times only a thin wall of rock separated the miners from disaster, and as they dug they could hear the sea pounding and roaring all around them.  Above their heads the great steam turbines trembled constantly, pumping sea-water out of the mines, doing what they could to keep people safe and the industry alive.  It was the Industrial Revolution; in the countryside the land was being partitioned into private fields and people were losing their livelihoods, while on the coast people were risking their lives for others’ gain.  It’s not hard to imagine the impact all this industry must have had on the environment, and the number of species of plants and animals that must have had to adapt to the fevered activity of Cornwall’s human inhabitants, or perish.

Yet as we walked amid the old mining works there was still some life there.  At those first leftover diggings, just out of Perranporth on the second day of the walk, on open ground midway between the path and the cliffs, we saw three birds.  My father scarcely got a glimpse of them and afterwards was unsure that he’d even seen them at all, but I got a good look, and I knew them right away: they were Choughs (“Chuffs”, Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax).  I’d never seen them before but I’ve long gazed in curiosity at their likeness in my field guide to the birds of Great Britain, a book so old that it still lists as “common” Red Kites (Milvus milvus) and sundry other birds that have stared local extinction full in the face.  There are two species of Chough in Britain: the Yellow-billed Chough, also known as the Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus); and the Red-billed Chough, more commonly known as simply the Chough.  The latter species is a bird particularly connected with Cornwall: historically it appeared on the Cornish coat of arms, alongside a miner and a fisherman; it’s sometimes known as the Cornish Chough.

Choughs are passerines like the Skylark, but more specifically they’re corvids, Family Corvidae, relatives of Crows including the little Jackdaws (Corvus monedula) that played along the clifftops like black-clad acrobats.  The greatest of the Corvids in Britain is the Raven (Corvus corax), and I saw one shortly after I saw the Choughs.  Ravens are birds of the wild but they live most famously in the Tower of London; it’s said that should they ever leave the Tower, the monarchy will fall – so  the Tower’s Ravens have their wings clipped, and are bound to stay where they are generation after generation.  The bird that I saw in Cornwall was intact, though, in its natural state, and as I unwittingly approached it I was startled by the sight of it flying up from a point of the path only  ten metres in front of me; it croaked gutturally and flapped its great black wings against the sky, disappearing from sight.  If my approach hadn’t disturbed it I may not have noticed it, so weary was I from walking against the wind around the unsheltered headland; so weary from trudging through the unlovely mine-scarred scenery.  My head was bowed in tiredness and it’s only because my head was bowed that I noticed – half a footfall before I stepped on it – a Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) lying in the middle of the path.  Its thick grey fur didn’t even move in the wind, and its body was curved against a large grey rock, as if carved from the very same stone.  As I approached it it kicked desperately with its back legs, but it couldn’t get to its feet, much less run away.  I was so startled that I barely even registered what I was seeing, and my heart began thumping in a fight-or-flight response as if the rabbit was something that could harm me.  There was something unnatural about its movements, about the way it flailed helplessly against the gravel of the path, as if its body really had started to fuse with the stone at its back.  There was something awful in its panic and it was with a start that I noticed its face, before I forced myself to look away: where its keen dark rabbit-eye should have been, there was instead an abyss, pink and fleshy and empty like a newborn baby’s mouth.  I stumbled and felt a wave of dread rise within me; I remembered the Raven; I didn’t know what to do about the Rabbit so I left it where it was, and warned my father about it lest he should step on it, and I continued walking through the ghastly despoiled landscape, with the Raven’s barking call ringing in my head.

The sight of the Rabbit left me shaken in a way I couldn’t quite quantify.  Not even the magnificence of the sea and the cliffs could exorcise the haunted feeling within me as I tried not to speculate on the animal’s fate.  I was losing count of the headlands by now, they were endless, so I can’t recall when it happened exactly but at some point beneath a sky threatening rain we came to yet another exposed headland, and upon it the remains of a military installation.  There was nothing marked on our map – just an empty space, the path skirting around the edge of the Ordnance Survey’s uncharacteristic blankness – and we were left to infer what we could, peering over the wire, and from remembering what we’d read online in our preparation for the walk: was that a runway?  Or was it a decoy?  Huts and buildings and concrete blocks looked stricken and long-disused; but elsewhere mysterious constructions hummed with electricity and formed an uneasy harmony with the sounds of the wind and the waves.  What looked like radar installations sat beneath the broad lowering sky, staring out to sea: waiting for disaster from afar.  The path squeezed us between fences into narrow passages like livestock runs; we clambered over stiles and were wary of even taking photographs of anything inland: every time we came to a corner or a confusion in the route there was a sign on the fence, reminding us that we were walking on land that belonged to the Ministry of Defence.  When we photographed the scenery accidental glimpses of military installations worked their way into the edges of the frame, and we continued quickly as if we might be accused of espionage.  As we walked I remembered a truism: that military land, firing ranges and training sites and the like, are often wildlife reserves of unrivalled richness – because the public is never allowed to encroach upon them.  But this military base was foreboding and seemed heavy upon the land.  After the walk, back home in Australia, my father left a message on my voicemail: he’d been going through his photos, and something he’d seen in them had triggered an alarm.  “I knew I had a funny feeling about that airfield” he said.  He’d seen in one of his photos the name Nancekuke: “Put ‘Nancekuke’ into Google”, he told me

In the Second World War Nancekuke, then called RAF Portreath, was an airfield, operating initially upon its opening in 1941 as a Fighter Command Sector Station.  By the end of the War the airfield had largely fallen into disuse, and in 1950 the Royal Air Force returned the land to the British Government.  From then on the Ministry of Defence used the base as an Army research centre, until finally in 1980 its ownership reverted back to the Air Force, which used it as a radar station – which is what it remains to this day.

It was those early years of Army use, though, that are Nancekuke’s most intriguing and most unsettling.  On the 18th of January 2000, the local Member of the House of Commons, Candy Atherton, raised in Parliament questions about Nancekuke’s troubled history and legacy during this period.  Addressing the Minister for the Armed Forces, John Spellar, Ms Atherton recounted the experiences of her constituents: people who had worked on the base in the 1950s reported becoming seriously and mysteriously sick; people who lived in the surrounding area reported similar ailments.  A large number of seals on Cornwall’s north coast had died suddenly.  And 41 people who had worked at Nancekuke, Ms Atherton reported, had died: nine during the term of their employment, and the remaining 32 in the years since.

“Put ‘Nancekuke’ into Google”, my father urged me, his voice sounding almost anxious as he rushed to get the words out, “the second entry will be ‘Nancekuke sarin gas’”.  For an adult human, a lethal dose of sarin is 0.5 milligrams – one half of a thousandth of a gram.  During its time under Army ownership, as Britain built up a stockpile of chemical weapons in the dawn of the Cold War, Nancekuke was home to the manufacture of twenty tonnes of sarin.  When the base was abandoned by the Army, contaminated material – buildings, production equipment – was buried on site.  That was in 1980; clean-up of the land began only in 2001, with five waste dumps at Nancekuke being registered as contaminated land in 2002.  The manager of the Nancekuke Remediation Project reported in issue 34 of the Defence Management Journal that it was “highly unlikely” that chemical weapons themselves were dumped at Nancekuke; but damage doesn’t have to be limited to the end-product: in her long question to the Minister on January 18 2000, Candy Atherton noted that the death of the seals, which occurred between the years of 1966 and 1979 when John Pardoe was the area’s Member of Parliament, corresponded with the flushing of decontaminants into the sea through a cave.


The poet Alice Oswald ends her epic poem Dart, about the river of that name in Cornwall’s eastern neighbour Devon, with a scene of a seal-watcher entering a sea-cave:

[I] float inwards into the trembling sphere
of one freshwater drip drip drip
where my name disappears and the sea slides in to replace it.

When we search for wildness, those of us with a yearning for it, we can be unprepared for what we find.  We’re inevitably searching for some place in which the human touch is absent: we want pristine forests; unspoiled mountains; unpolluted coastlines.  But in these terms the search for wildness, for true wilderness, is pointless: there’s barely a square metre of the earth that humans haven’t touched in one way or another.  More, though, the search for wilderness misses the point: we learn most not in those few places where humans are absent but in those places – temporal and physical, psychological and concrete – where humans have touched the landscape, or where the landscape has touched them; where the boundaries between human and non-human, more tenuous than we usually care to admit, come closest to dissolving.  I remember from several years ago my shock at visiting Snowdonia National Park, in Wales: the park celebrated not virgin wilderness but the human relationship with nature, the human involvement in nature.  This was most striking in the fact that since the National Park’s establishment farmers had been encouraged to return to the land, to work it as they had for thousands of years.  This seemed utterly alien to my Australian sensibility, obsessed as we are with preserving our shrinking bush, but in fact the Australian landscape is more worked by human hands than those of us of non-indigenous heritage, still to a large extent seeing the land with foreign eyes, have ever acknowledged.

Cornwall has been inhabited by humans since the end of the last Ice Age.  The Cornovii, the people for whom we give the County its name, lived there from the Iron Age until after the Romans had left Britain.  That’s a pittance when compared to the Aboriginal inhabitation of Australia but it’s long enough for people to know how to live with the land.  Such knowledge beds down slowly, like layers of sediment forming into rock; but it may have to be un-learned much more quickly.  Things are changing.  In Portreath where we stayed on the second night of our walk, in the shadow of Nancekuke, my father looked in horror at the houses crowded into the low valley bottom, barely metres above the high-tide mark of the broad beach and in a narrow space between two towering cliff-faces.  They’ll all be rendered uninhabitable, he pointed out, when the seas rise.  “There may also be some potential opportunities for Cornwall as a region as a result of climate change,” the Cornwall Council’s website says hopefully, before admitting: “However, most impacts are potentially negative including the need for significant adaptation in the design and location of buildings and infrastructure.”

Significant adaptation.  For humans and non-humans alike; but the animals of Cornwall – animals everywhere – have long had to adapt to the changes that humans have wrought upon the landscape.    How, I wonder, might the Fulmar adapt?  Ever since people have stared out to sea they’ve put ships in the water; ever since they’ve put ships in the water there have been consequences for the environment, whether from the felling trees or from the dumping petrochemicals.  Whenever the Coast Path took my father and I down onto a beach the high-tide line was marked not with seaweed and strewn shells but with styrofoam, and aluminium cans, and the detritus of human civilisation: in a post from January 2012 the news aggregate website This Is Cornwall states that each kilometre of Cornish beach contains on average 2000 items of rubbish.  Cornish beach – I should say British beaches; I should say the world’s beaches.  We imagine the sea as wild, impervious – but most of all we imagine it as infinite.  We dump our waste in it at will and we do it without thinking, or at best with the pained avoidance of thought.  One imagines the Fulmars will adapt to this choking pollution, if they adapt at all, by going further and further out to sea; one imagines that they might be doing that already.

Animals do adapt, though – some of them.  Whenever my father and I passed some barren ground along the Coast Path we encountered Skylarks: we saw the females skip and flit over the humps of earth; we heard the males proclaim their songs from the sky.  Skylarks are ground-nesters: the reason the males fly so high to announce their territories is so that when they sing, the attention of predators is drawn to them but not to their nests.  They’re birds of the open spaces, and the disturbed soil of old excavations serve them just as well as a valley floor or a hilltop.  So each mine-scarred headland, each steep slope and each ploughed and planted acre that we walked past or through in our few days in Cornwall was in its small way being rewilded by the Skylarks; for as we walked we passed not a single patch of land cleared by human hand that didn’t have a Skylark singing his loud song from high above it.

In the afternoon of the second day, before the ruined steam engine halls, before Nancekuke, in a cafe where we’d stopped in Churchtown in the village of St Agnes, I’d flipped open a book of facts about Cornwall.  Knowing no better I’d assumed that the Choughs I’d seen around the old mine sites the day before must not be unusual, but as I scanned the endless pieces of trivia in the book my eye alighted upon that distinctive word, “Chough”.  The birds, I read, are not common in Cornwall at all, but in fact are recent re-arrivals in the county: their return in 2001 was heralded as a great occasion, and an indication of a true triumph of conservation and environmental restoration.

When they returned it was the first time that Choughs had been seen in Cornwall for nearly thirty years.  After all that time the first astonishing sighting, made by fishermen, was of four birds flying southwards over the sea; one turned back, but the other three made land and remained.  That I’d seen three birds myself – huddled in a silent group, black bodies turned against the wind, their eyes watching me cautiously over their long, decurved red beaks – seemed scarcely credible, and I allowed myself a moment to indulge the thought that just maybe the birds I’d seen were those same three original returnees.

Legend has it that upon his defeat in battle King Arthur, a Cornish king above all else, was transformed into a Chough; and that when all the Choughs leave Cornwall, and then return again, so King Arthur will return.  I can’t speak to that particular restoration but the Choughs have been back in Cornwall for twelve years now and they’ve been breeding that whole time.  That original trio was made up of two females and a male; the male and one of the females were a pair, and in the ten years after their arrival in Cornwall they raised 36 chicks.  Since then more adults have arrived and begun breeding; and the chicks have grown up and have themselves started raising their own broods, so that in only twelve years there are now generations of new Cornish Choughs.  So heralded has been the return of the Choughs that the lives of the three original returnees in particular have been unusually well documented: the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds recounts, for instance, that the male was injured in a battle with a Herring Gull, and was unable to walk for days yet still struggled on to feed his chicks.  The new Cornish Choughs are being closely watched and there’s now a great cohort of them – a clattering of Choughs, in fact, for that, wonderfully, is their collective noun – and among other observations, it’s been noted that some of the birds have taken to making their nests in the security of the long-abandoned mining works.

At its peak nearly a third of Cornwall’s population worked in the mining industry.  When the industry collapsed many Cornish people emigrated to Australia, particularly to South Australia where my father was born.  Many years ago when my father and I had walked along the South Coast Track in Tasmania, our departure point had been Melaleuca, a tiny and long-abandoned settlement.  We’d walked past bothies and Nissen huts that had once supported a tin-mining industry, a pocket industry infinitely smaller than the great endeavours of Cornwall and even more remote, on the edge of an even greater and less gentle sea.  Melaleuca and the valley that surrounds it are also the last stronghold of the Orange-bellied Parrot (Neophema chrysogaster), perhaps Australia’s most endangered bird.  There are only two-hundred of them left in the wild; they flock in numbers around Melaleuca and are seen nowhere else in Tasmania.  There’s nothing to infer from their presence in a valley once so despoiled by human hand; nothing, except that one does not necessarily preclude the other; that whether human or non-human, we make use of the land as we will.  For all the nobility of our increased awareness of the animals around us, and our impact upon them, we still view them as an “other”, a group of creatures collectively unknowable and alien.  Yet the fact that they still, some of them, find ways to make themselves at home among us – whether Sklarks in a field or parrots by an old tin mine in Tasmania or Choughs in the mined landscape of Cornwall – should be instructive: for what could we possibly be to them if not just another creature in a world abundant with them?


The walk was to end the next day, in Hayle, from where my father and I would catch a bus through the uninspiring streetscape to nearby St Ives, and from there a train back out of Cornwall the day after.  Before we got to Hayle there was one last headland to navigate: Godrevy Point.  As we approached it we could see that beyond the tip of the point, on a small island, was a brilliantly white lighthouse, the very building that’s reputed to have inspired Virginia Woolf, gazing at it across St Ives Bay, to write To the Lighthouse.  Small flocks of birds, pendulous and flapping frantically, were patrolling the waves around the island: Guillemots, too small and distant to be identifiable but written of with every mention of Godrevy Point.

For the last three days and sixty kilometres we’d been walking towards Hayle; but I’d been walking more particularly towards Godrevy Point – for it was there, we’d been told by a friend who knew the area well, that we would see seals.  We’d seen a couple on the first day: following the gaze of a fellow-walker we’d seen two heads, one grey and near and the other dark and distant, upright in the waves, gazing back at us.  Though they were too distant for us to see any details of their faces, I fancied that there was yet something familiar about their attitude: a particular poise that spoke of the kind of curiosity that we often like to claim as our own.  It’s this attitude, this distant inquisitiveness, that gives seals their magic: it makes them seem warmly familiar, even as they remain so utterly alien to us in so many ways.  It’s little surprise that coastal cultures abound with myths about seals changing into humans, and humans into seals: we can imagine them as something not so unlike ourselves, and perhaps we fancy that if we returned to the sea we would with time become like them.

When my father and I reached the cliff above the seal colony on Godrevy Point the location was conspicuous by the crowd of people lining the pine fence that formed a viewing platform.  Laminated signs on the fence instructed us all to be quiet, but there was a kind of reverence among the people gazing down at the seals that rendered such instruction unnecessary.  The seal colony, a beach twenty metres below, was small and inaccessible except by sea; and from the sea it was sheltered by the narrowness and the length of the cove in which it sat, and by large rocks just offshore which broke the force of any waves that managed to approach the sand.

On the beach, some of them in bright warm sun and some of them in deep icy shade, were twenty or thirty Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus): grey or black or brown, they emerged from the stones scattered along the beach as my eye adjusted to their presence, and to the shapes of their cylindrical bodies, as if adjusting to darkness: the more I stared, the more the seals became apparent, until I saw them scattered up and down the beach and didn’t know where to look, there were so many of them.

We noticed movement in the water and saw there a young seal playing in the waves.  While the adult seals basked in the sun or lay oblivious, motionless, in the deep shade, this solitary pup, dark-furred and wide-eyed, dived in and out of the water.  It made exploratory forays towards the beach before letting the undercurrent carry it out again; perhaps looking for its mother, it made a motion to land at one end of the beach before swimming back out and down to the other end.  Once there a wave swept its small, confused body up hard against a rock at the foot of the beach; yet in its youthful resilience it bounced off the rock with a bleat and an alarmed undulation of its little body before clambering out of the surf and onto the sand.  Some of the adults stretched and looked up from their slumber, but if the youngster’s mother was there she didn’t move towards it, nor make a sound.  Yet it had swum, and it was safe, and it continued along the beach until we decided to avert our eyes, and leave it in peace.

We pressed on to Hayle.  Feeling closed-in by the Hayle Towans, a series of huge sand dunes that run for five kilometres or so from Godrevy Point all the way to the town, we made the decision to descend to the beach instead; a poor decision, for though the heat in the tall dunes had been intense, walking across that flat expanse along the line of the sea was no relief at all.  As soon as we crested the dunes we realised that the wind that had been blowing hard and relentless for the entire walk was here at its peak: it was so strong that we could walk into it only by leaning at a steep angle, as if leaning against a heavy door that yielded only reluctantly; at times we had to turn around and walk backwards down the beach just to seek some respite.  Sand whipped into our legs and the wind knocked the breath out of our mouths and sucked the moisture off our lips so that we became more thirsty than we had been at any time during the previous two days.  The beach went on for kilometres and we walked nearly the whole length of it.  The sheer mechanical simplicity of placing one foot after the other was the only thing that kept us moving, like automatons, and when we paused, to watch the local surf lifesavers practice launching their enormous rescue boat, it was a relief to stop walking and yet also an acute agony, after fifteen minutes of observing, to realise that if we’d kept walking instead we’d be off the beach by now.

Though the men were practicing to save lives, the act of getting the boat into the water was painfully slow: the boat was driven down on an enormous truck whose caterpillar tracks stopped it sinking into the sand; a winch was attached from the back of the truck to the front of the boat; the truck then reversed carefully into the sea to such a depth that the boat, when eventually lowered off the tilting bed of the truck, could float of its own accord.  Only once it was in the water – a slow process of winching and shouted guidance from the men on the sand – could the boat finally be released.  Once in the water it was piloted at speed, out across the breakers and back, up and down in front of the beach, before being brought back to the truck, and the winch, and the whole process being reversed.  Watching the whole slow process I wondered how on earth these men expected to save anybody from drowning – was that even what the boat was for, or had I misunderstood?  It was okay now, before the peak season, when the beach was empty – but soon enough the beach would be crowded with tourists.

Or would it?  Normally we’re full at this time of year.  Perhaps there’s something discomfiting about the sea, after all, and in times of stress we’d rather stay away from it.  Or perhaps it’s too great a luxury, those idle hours on the sand, when money’s tight and work is uncertain.  As awe-struck as I had been by the sea ever since arriving in Cornwall, I was reminded at all times – by my own amazement, as much as by anything – that I was merely a visitor there.  The riches of the sea and of the liminal margins of it are so immense that we seem to create for ourselves a greater history there than in any other environment; and human history is by necessity lived in, and ongoing.  Watching the men lower their boat into the surf and pull it back out again, I thought at first to describe them as battling the elements – a familiar phrase, a knee-jerk response.  But I realise now that that’s wrong: it was not a fight they were waged in, but a negotiation.  They were engaged in an endless call-and-response with the sea, managing themselves around it as perhaps only those with a deep and ingrained culture of sea-life can do.  Like any sea-side province Cornwall has always been a place of boats, whether incoming or outgoing, and the men practicing their surf-lifesaving strategies were of the same stock as the fisherfolk who for millennia have been harvesting the sea; they were in their way of a kind too with the men who’d dug down below the sea searching for tin and copper; and they were of the same lineage as those hermits and huers who’d stared out to sea from the top of Newquay, waiting patiently.

Kathleen Jamie, in her exquisite essay the Gannetry, writes of watching a landscape endlessly, and by doing so learning its familiar shapes and patterns: only with such knowledge can you tell at a glance what’s unfamiliar.  In the essay she’s watching the sea and almost unconsciously notices amid the waves “a vertical pencil line”: the dorsal fin of an Orca (Orcinus orca) rising steep and dark out of the water.  When I’ve walked in Tasmania it’s often been the rainiest days that have been the most rewarding: with the panoramic views of that island’s mountains closed off by clouds and fog I’ve been forced to focus instead on the near-at-hand, and to really look at the forest, and the path, and the rocks – all the things I wouldn’t normally bother looking at.  We tend to think that we know what nature is, and we have expectations of what it should be and what it definitely isn’t – but more often than not we don’t really bother paying attention to it.  If we did perhaps we’d realise that, like Newquay and the coast it’s built upon, our world and the natural world are entangled in one another: they are not discreet; they are perhaps not even contiguous; but rather, they are continuous.


Skylark image and Fulmar image sourced from
Cornwall images taken by the author


  1. This essay is so beautiful it brings a tear to my eye and it should be published in a widely distributed book, as well as a blog. Superb observation and writing Harry

  2. You have an amazing eye for detail and moreover a capacity to make readers see it also. It is a lovely piece of writing Harry. It would be great if it could find its way into a publication for fellow walkers in Cornwell.

  3. Thanks, I'm glad you liked it!

  4. Hi Harry... i've shared a link to my F/book page... Enjoyed it thoroughly. And, tho perhaps 'off topic', your walking with yr father tickled me too. I had a few short walks with my old man, in Dorset mostly but once around Porlock (he said i'd almost killed him). Mine was an awkward relationship contrary to yours. I'll make further comment on my F/b page. Thanks very much indeed for alerting me to yr blog! Best wishes, Kris

  5. Thanks Kris, I'm glad you like it. The only walks I've done previously in the UK have been day-walks so it was interesting to go for a longer walk - it was certainly a contrast with the long walks I've done in Australia.

    Thanks for sharing the link. I need to get a copy of Eileen Chong's "Burning Rice" for the poetry book club I'm in so I'll probably see you soon!

    1. Hi Harry. Kris put me onto your blog. I'm not a nature boy and I certainly can't relate to walks with my father but I have visited and read in Conwall in 2007 and I very much enjoyed your piece of writing. I agree with others that the article (or extracts) should be seen by a wider audience. My verse novel The Barrier Range of which a large part is set in Broken Hill has a section on Cornwall miners coming to Australia. Anyway, once again, thanks for exposing me to your story telling... Cheers Ray